Theme 1: Freshwater Security

We live on a resource-limited planet where pressures on water usage are increasing rapidly and pose mounting challenges for sustainable water management. In addition, climate change is anticipated to cause many water-stressed regions to become even drier and the frequency of extreme events, both droughts and floods, to increase and exacerbate the disaster risk of the society. The capacity of society to mitigate against such problems and, where possible to adapt to them, is currently constrained by the limits of our understanding and knowledge of the complex coupling of natural and anthropogenic systems that operate on the multiples scales of water stress and the unavailability of this science to management decision-making. The global scientific community needs to rapidly evolve the knowledge base that will enhance our capacity to enable communities to become more resilient, and manage the water system more sustainably in the face of the many interacting drivers of water supply and demand.

Water stress is a key component of water security and is influenced both by natural hydro-meteorological processes as well as the many complex facets of our wider societal footprint, such as land-use or water abstraction (for agriculture or industry) which in-turn are governed by patterns of consumption or population change. We currently have an inadequate understanding of the critical interactions between natural processes and human activities over a wide range of temporal and spatial scales, as well as across different regions. Managing regional water security remains challenging as the science enabling confident forecasts of rain-fed water supply over (seasonal) timescales that are most useful in decision-making is also highly immature. Furthermore, we have a limited set of management approaches, both physical and behavioural, that will enable society to become more resilient to water stress in future decades.

To tackle such problems requires a significant directional change in the science we need to undertake. We need to develop novel, transferable, approaches to the delivery of freshwater security in order to facilitate decision making for wicked problems that inevitably involve trade-offs (e.g. between ecosystems services and livelihoods or lifestyles). Research is therefore needed to address the coupling of natural and anthropogenic systems operating on the multiples scales of water stress as well as the complexity of the associated decision-making processes.

Recognising this, and the value of interdisciplinary and comparative approaches, the Belmont Forum and G8HORCs are calling for research groups from at least three different countries involving both natural and social sciences to co-design and develop, in conjunction with users, medium sized regionally-based projects that tackle either one or both of the following work packages:

  1. Identification and characterization of the interactions between natural processes (physical and biological, including ecological processes) and human (including cultural, social, economic, technological, abstraction, transfer and water re-use) practices that govern water budgeting in selected regions. This will include establishing how these drivers vary over wide-ranging temporal and spatial scales (including extreme events and global scales), their impacts, and determining which are most important in governing the vulnerability of socio-economic and environmental systems to water extremes. 
  2. Development of approaches that support the evolution of resilient communities/regions through improved seasonal (months to multi-year) forecasting of droughts, taking into account natural (hydro-meteorological) and socio-economic drivers identified in the above work package. Research should clearly couple the complex system science of water stress at multiple-scales to the structure and protocols for decision making. Development of these approaches is expected to involve both model-based and place-based research that makes use of existing observations and existing modelling approaches, and where possible identifies key missing local observations. It will explore utilisation of forecast advice, and will consider determining how individuals, communities, businesses and governments alter, or not, their habits and practices on the basis of improved forecasts.