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Systems Approach to achieving Water Security in a Changing Climate

The Hub hosts a side event at the UN Water Conference 2023

06 April 2023

A mixed group of Hub researchers smile and stand together around a Water Security Hub banner
A mixed group of Hub researchers smile and stand together around a Water Security Hub banner

Representatives from across our global team delivered our session at the UN Water Conference

The Water Security Hub was privileged to be invited to deliver one of the side events taking place at the UN Water Conference last month. Our session, ‘Systems approach to achieving water security in a changing climate’, offered participants insights into the Hub’s innovative approach and diverse research. Hub colleagues from across our global team, including some of our Early Career Researchers (ECRs) and members of our International Advisory Board (IAB), took part in the session: Dr Claire Walsh from Newcastle University; Dr Michaela Goodson, Dr Cindy Lee Ik Sing and Miss Kwa Yee Chu from Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia (NUMed); Dr Prabhakar Shukla from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IITD); Dr Alan Nicol from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI); Professor Graham Jewitt from IHE Delft Institute of Water Education; Dr Graham Alabaster from UN Habitat; and Professor Leo Heller from Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, and former UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation (2014-2020).

The aims of our session were to demonstrate the value of a systems approach to water security through different lenses (eg. sectoral lens and place-based lens), drawing upon cross-cutting themes that underpin the Hub’s research and ethos, including interdisciplinarity, gender, education, and data. Claire opened our session by explaining the Hub’s innovative work, followed by Leo’s overview of water security issues and targets, as well as his experience as UN Special Rapporteur. Tackling something as complex as water security requires an approach that simultaneously takes into account the broader, global picture, alongside localised, specific challenges. Water security is a balancing act between multiple aspects and actors - without understanding and appreciating an entire water system we cannot produce solutions that balance trade-offs and competing values. That is why the Hub is using an integrated, transformative systems approach that recognises interactions and interdependencies between people, institutions, natural environment, and infrastructure. 

A still taken from a presentation delivered during the UN Water Conference session
A still taken from a presentation delivered during the UN Water Conference session

Our integrated, transformative systems approach takes into account the bigger picture and all aspects of water security

Water is crucial to and underpins all other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Michaela explained the team’s work taking place in the Johor River Basin, Malaysia, exploring linkages between water quality and health impacts, whilst Graham Jewitt discussed the water and food security nexus. Using the Johor River Basin as a case study, Cindy then demonstrated how the Hub’s systems approach to water security in the basin allows greater understanding of how aspects like water infrastructure, education, climate change, and health link together and compound each other. Our distinctive transdisciplinary team and multidimensional methods break down traditional, siloed ways of thinking and combine multiple research strands. This creates greater understanding, for example, of how antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in the Johor River Basin is worsened by population growth, poor hygiene and sanitation measures, lack of education, and climate change - if we want to address the problem of AMR effectively, we must tackle it across all these factors. 

Prabhakar shared with participants how the collaboratory structure has enabled important stakeholder involvement at a variety of levels within the Hub’s India team. The innovative new app from IIT Delhi, for example, uses a citizen science approach to gather real-time data on urban flooding, allowing residents to become involved in tackling urban flooding, and facilitating not just the validation of hydrological modelling, but also assisting government authorities with decision making. 

Alan explored the Hub’s development and use of Problemscapes to tackle complex water security issues in Ethiopia. Problemscaping as an approach can help us understand water security as a more dynamic and hybrid system, helping to support planning decisions for long-term solutions by enabling a systems perspective that considers the complexity and connectivity between drivers, actors, institutions, and physical and social entities. A problemscape can be converted to a ‘solutionscape’ by co-creating tailored solutions with multiple stakeholders. Finally, Graham Alabaster concluded our session, reflecting on how valuable a systems approach is to achieving water security and everything the Hub has achieved so far. 

In his closing remarks at the conference, President of the General Assembly, Csaba Kőrösi, emphasised the importance of meaningful stakeholder engagement and collaborative working. The Hub’s ‘Collaboratory’ model creates an inclusive space where all actors ‘have a seat at the table’ during our collaborative processes, enabling us to support the establishment and sustainability of results-driven solutions that ensure no one is left behind. Now, more than ever, global partnerships and collaborations are crucial to our work and impact, not just within the scope of the project, but also beyond it, for long-term, sustainable change that benefits society.

Five Hub members sit and stand together in front of a backdrop of the SDG logos
Five Hub members sit and stand together in front of a backdrop of the SDG logos

Our team brings together researchers with different expertise and experience from around the globe

“If you go to most countries there’s very little communication between different ministries… Even though we preach about multi-sectorality to solve problems like climate change and health, it’s very difficult to actually put it into practice. What the Hub is doing is it’s starting to show these possibilities to the actors at the local level; what can be done, what potential is there, how it can be unlocked, and how you can encourage different disciplines to work together.

The work and the research is filtering into local authorities and it's having an impact… this dynamic relationship that exists in all of the case studies is really leading to major changes.

I think already, and even through COVID, the Hub has made an extraordinary contribution to furthering water security and helping us to understand the very complex interactions of water security.” - Dr Graham Alabaster

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