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Solving Global Water Problems: Hydrological Science is Not Enough

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 09 July 2012

Jay Famiglietti of UC Irvine just posted a blog at National Geographic's Water Currents, calling for greater investment in hydrological science in order to better understand current and future water supplies and demand. Much of Jay's recommendations focuses on better data availability and computer models for hydrological processes. He also acknowledges a need for technology transfer to decision-makers and communication to the general public. I absolutey agree with all of these points. But it is not enough to solve the water problems in the US or globally.

I am going to pretend I'm the water science genie and grant Jay his wish: you have the perfect models, you have all the data you want, at the highest 3-D resolution that you need. For example, you can now perfectly measure and predict current and future groundwater depletion in places like Africa and California's Central Valley. Uncertainty? Nah...not a problem.

So now what? First, you have to effectively communicate that science to policy-makers and the public, which Jay and most hydrologists acknowledge. But there are many policy-makers and citizens who will take that perfect science (even when presented in a very simple manner) and flick it away like a bothersome mosquito because they don't trust the scientists, or because the science reflects negatively on their current behavior(for example, groundwater extraction), or does not agree with their basic ideology. Second, even if the policy-makers believe the science, they usually have to figure out a way to cooperate with other water users, and why should Water District X stop withdrawing groundwater if Water Distrct Y will not? Such cooperation problems are barriers to sustainable water management from the local to global scale. Third, let's say a bunch of policy makers believe the science and come up with some new policies to govern urban and agricultural water use, or non-point source pollution. These policies might be asking or requiring farmers, citizens, factories, and cities to change their behaviors. So we need to know exactly how these targeted decision-makers will respond to different types of policy tools.

These issues are just the tip of the iceberg with respect to the intersection between science and policy. What natural and physical scientists need to realize is that the cognitive, social, economic, and political processes are at least as important as the hydrological processes. We need social scientists working on these problems, in partnership with natural and physical sciences. This is the whole idea behind interdisciplinary research, especially in the context of social-ecological systems.

I've written before about how sometimes it seems like water management is like a people-less science. The social aspects must be taken seriously, along with the social science. Otherwise the perfect hydrological models will have a good chance of being paperweights on agency shelves.