The Value of Water: Thoughts on World Water Day 2021

22nd March 2021

The theme of this year’s World Water Day is ‘the value of water’, so we caught up with two of our academics working in that field – Dr Hussam Hussein and Ms. Safa Fanaian – to learn how collaboration and cooperation lie at the heart of sustainable water governance.

Most of us are fortunate enough to take clean water for granted. But there are 2.2 billion people today for whom water has inestimable value, simply because they start each new day without a clean supply of it. Water scarcity is, moreover, a problem that besets nations as well as individuals and communities – in 2015, it was identified as one of the greatest risks to world economies by the Global Risk report. Small wonder, then, that the United Nations made the universal availability and sustainable management of water one of its Sustainable Development Goals.

Here at Somerville, our academics are considering the challenges of water governance in a myriad of ways – but always with an awareness that water cannot be studied or managed in isolation. Safa Fanaian, whose PhD looks at the value of complexity theory in responding to the water governance issues of river-based cities, is clear that a monocentric effort just doesn’t work. ‘Even within the most hierarchical and dictatorial structures, the fluidity of water demands that multiple sectors work together towards a common goal. However, the silo-mentality that still exists in both science and society creates barriers to the actualization of effective collaboration. Furthermore, collaboration is not easy.’

Fortunately, Somerville’s water experts are able to build on the model of collaborative working pioneered by the scholars of the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development, as well as Somerville’s long tradition of emancipating discourse across disciplinary boundaries. Whether working in hydrology, economics, geology, climate science, international relations or engineering, Somerville scholars share the view that the value of water is ultimately contingent upon our ability to value a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach.

Dr. Hussam Hussein embodies this interdisciplinary approach in his research on how climate change is impacting the water-energy-food nexus, and how these dynamics are associated with migrations, especially in arid and semi-arid regions. To understand water, Dr Hussein explains, ‘I need to cross disciplines and boundaries, situating my analysis of water within its connections to other sectors such as energy and food.’

Collaboration is also vital in water governance at the practical level, Dr Hussein notes. ‘At present, I am focusing on the Middle East to produce policy impact research that will facilitate cooperation and dialogue amongst states sharing transboundary freshwater resources, with a view to transforming their relations reducing conflicts and tensions, and reaching water justice.’

Safa Fanaian’s research has given her a unique perspective on how networks of actors work together in complex interactions – as well as our chances of mitigating those risks and facilitating genuine collaboration. ‘Anyone who has ever been involved in group work can attest to the challenge of bringing diverse people and ideas together to deliver results. The question which then arises is how do we move towards collaboration that enables equitable results and avoids confusion and chaos? There are no easy answers. But there is a need to go beyond simple calls for collaboration, recognize the value and complexity involved, and take time to overcome the collaboration barriers in a contextual relevant manner.’

The Tuareg people have a saying that water is life (‘aman iman’). As the impact of climate change is felt, the truth of this statement will only become clearer. We need the collaboration and thought-leadership modelled by scholars such as Dr Hussein and Ms Fanaian to ensure that water and life remain accessible to all.


Further reading

‘What is water governance?’

Collaboration and conflict in complex water governance systems across a development gradient: addressing common challenges and solutions

‘Assessing Legitimacy Within Collaborative Water Governance: How, When, and by Whom?’ by Natalya Melnychuk

‘Water governance: flexibility, uncertainty and participation’ by Kevin Grecksch

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