Why water in crisis is a threat for life

The Source
By: Guest contributor, Tue Jun 1 2021

Author: Guest contributor

In honor of World Environment Day (June 5th) we've invited a few field specialists who ‘translate science into on-ground realities’ that can support policymaking and nurture the glass-root community collaboration. We asked how they address issues directly related to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation. Here we're sharing thoughts from Claudia Pahl-Wostl. Check out our new SDG6 hub for selected research content and more discussions around clean and safe water and sanitation.

Written by Claudia Pahl-Wostl

My research -  from understanding complexity to transformative change

Water is life and water is in crisis. A threat for life! The good news – many water related challenges are caused by governance deficits and management failures. Hence these could be resolved by changing governance and management practice. The bad news – this insight is not new. But governance challenges persist and water crises get worse rather than better. How to support transformative changes in water governance and paradigm shifts in water management towards more integrated, adaptive and sustainable approaches? These are central research questions guiding my research. 

One of the reasons for the lack of progress is the fact that many water-related decisions are made in other sectors.  More recently nexus approaches such as the water-energy-food nexus have started to address this point. Nexus approaches highlight the need to take into account and to manage interdependencies between resources.  In the end we have to move towards an integrated approach to managing landscapes and all the services they provide.  This cannot be achieved by incremental changes but requires transformations of governance and management systems. 

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Research on transformative change and societal learning cannot and should not be conducted from the standpoint of an external observer. Much of our research follows a trans-disciplinary approach where stakeholders from policy and practice are actively engaged in the research process. 

SDG 6 – implementation must become everyone’s concern

Given the persistent challenges it is quite plausible that one of the targets of SDG 6 directly addresses water governance -  SDG 6.5.1, the degree of implementation of IWRM (Integrated Water Resources Management). Assessments on the state of IWRM implementation confirmed deficits that we have also identified in our research. Many countries have introduced innovative water legislation, but their effectiveness is reduced by implementation gaps, in particular at regional and local scales.  The South African Water Act that entered into force 1998, for example, has often been praised as being exemplary on an international scale. However, it has encountered severe implementation problems. To date only few catchment management agencies are operational. Water quality and quantity problems have become more severe and water security has declined. Germany is a country with high institutional capacity where one would not expect policy implementation problems. However, despite numerous regulatory frameworks at different levels, the nitrate pollution of groundwater by agricultural activities has remained a persistent problem. Only two decades after the entering into force of the European Water Framework Directive the German government has finally taken more action to close implementation gaps. Such plans have encountered severe resistance from farmers, a development also characterizing other countries. Agriculture is one, but not the only sector that needs to be addressed to solve water management problems.

In our research we identified several reasons for implementation gaps, in particular weak institutional capacity, lack of political will, asymmetric power constellations among different sectors and actor groups, conflicts between hierarchical governance traditions and the claim for participatory approaches. Such deficits can only be overcome when the implementation of the SDGs adopts an integrated approach and becomes embedded in broader stakeholder processes. Monitoring of indicators must be linked to diagnosis of deficits and priorities for action. Otherwise the monitoring of SDGs may just be ticking of boxes by governmental officials without much reflection on the steps required towards improvement and transformative change. 


In a recent project (STEER) we have developed a diagnostic methodology to (1) identify (water) governance and in particular coordination deficits, (2) set priorities and identify leverage points and (3) design and implement a solution-oriented processes. The approach has focuses on complex cross-sectoral coordination problems and resulting sustainability deficits. It closes also another gap – the lack of attention devoted to linking the levels of national legislation and local operational implementation. The concept of ecosystem services has proven to be particularly useful in identifying coordination deficits and resulting trade-offs between different ecosystem service uses. Such trade-offs are often perceived as being irreconcilable and framed as zero-sum games. However, often significant potential for reducing trade-offs and enhancing synergies are ignored. Identifying and mobilizing such potential requires learning processes and innovative approaches to coordination and cooperation. Nature based solutions or green infrastructure are a promising concept in this respect. But its implementation depends largely on the quality of the governance processes.

Role of funders and publishers in strengthening the science-policy-practice interface

Project based research with funding periods of typically two to three years does not support the development of long-term collaborative relationships between stakeholders and researchers. Developing and sustaining trustful relationships requires time and continuity. Often products for application in practice are ready for use at the end of projects but support is lacking to support such application. In the STEER project, for example, we have developed a diagnostic water governance tool and a data base on case studies and coordination instruments. We received quite a few expressions of interest of potential applicants in policy and practice. The diagnostic strength of the tool would profit now from further applications. However, as project funding is terminated we lack capacity to support such an application and social learning process. More targeted funds to sustain such networks and implementation activities and collaboration between different ministries would enhance the effectiveness of exchange across the science-policy-practice interface.

Regarding publishers, it would be useful to offer more flexible and innovative formats and thus opportunities for stakeholders from policy and practice and mixed author teams to express their points of view. Web-based publishing offers numerous possibilities for doing so. The Springer Nature Sustainability Community is a great idea and a step in the right direction. 

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Claudia Pahl-Wostl
About Claudia Pahl-Wostl
Claudia Pahl-Wostl is professor for resources management at the institute of geography and director of the research center Institute for Environmental Systems Research at the University of Osnabrück, Germany. 

Her major research interests are adaptive, multi-level governance and management of water resources, social and societal learning and their role in sustainability transformations, and conceptual and methodological frameworks to analyze social-ecological systems. She is (co)author of numerous papers in peer-reviewed journals, chapters in edited books, policy briefs and popular reports. Her emphasis on interdisciplinary and community-building work is reflected in her role as co-editor of four books and sixteen special issues in peer reviewed journals. She is Series Editor of Water Governance - Concepts, Methods, and Practice


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