Prof. András Szöllösi-Nagy interview — Hydrodiplomacy and addressing water security: lessons from 40 years of experience

An interview with Prof. András Szöllösi-Nagy, one of the most recognised names in international water management, who over the past 40 years he has been instrumental in the shaping both institutions and approaches to freshwater management. In the discussion, he talks about what he has learned during his career.

Prior to his 2009-2014 appointment in Delft as rector of UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, he was the director of the Division of Water, secretary of the International Hydrological Programme, and deputy director-general of the natural sciences sector of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). While at UNESCO, Szöllösi-Nagy developed the organisation’s response capacities in the area of freshwater, including launching the World Water Assessment Program (WWAP) and the Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential (PCCP) program that deals with conflict prevention and resolution concerning international waters. In 2003, Szöllösi-Nagy was instrumental in establishing the new UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education and was a key player in the integration of the institute’s education and research programs in UNESCO.

Prof. Szöllösi-Nagy is a founding member of the World Water Council (WWC), where he served six terms as an elected member of the Board of Governors. Currently, he is a professor of Sustainable Water Management at the National University of Public Service in Hungary and serves as Chair of the Intergovernmental Council of IHP.

Interview topics

  • About Prof. András Szöllösi-Nagy and his speciality in hydrological modelling
  • The history of the International Hydrological Program
  • Andras’ story behind the World Water Assessment Program
  • The on-the-ground impact these data initiatives are having
  • Are we running out of water? What is the right thing to do about it?
  • Three major challenges: transboundary water, water scarcity, and water security
  • Thoughts of groundwater resources and global water issues
  • About the High-Level Panels on Water
  • Water diplomacy: water as a source of cooperation

You are a specialist in hydrological modelling?

I specialise in mathematical modelling of hydrological processes which has evolved into a very, very powerful tool. With modern capabilities, we can model global processes in the water cycle in ways that were not even dreamed of 50 years ago. We have developed a new class of models which are partially deterministic — that is to say, they are based on the physical laws, Newtonian laws — and partially statistical (stochastic), in the sense that they look at the random behaviour of the residual time series, which deterministic models are producing. There was always a serial correlation between those sequences, which means that if there is an internal correlation amongst the members of a time series, they are subject to predictability. So you can still use information. For example, in flood forecasting, I combined the structured statistical approach and applied a recursive updating mechanism.

You were one of the founding members of the International Hydrological Programme and helped initiate the World Water Assessment Programme and many other now-familiar aspects of the international water sector. Can you tell us how that came about?

It’s a long story.

When I was about 25, I had the wonderful opportunity to join the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), which is in a small village south of Vienna, called Laxenburg. At the time it was an east-west institution that had sprung out of an idea of President Johnson’s security adviser, McGeorge Bundy. It was near the peak of the Cold War, in the late 1960s and this man proposed bringing together young scientists from the east and the west in a bid to relax the tension. There were six of us from the east, and six from the west. I’m from Hungary, which in those days was occupied by the USSR. I was chosen because I spoke some English and other languages, and was involved in mathematical modelling in hydrology. My field at the time was stochastic systems, random systems which behave randomly yet include a pattern that makes them predictable. I was sent out through the Iron Curtain for three days to Laxenburg, where I gave a seminar. I stayed for two years!

The director of the institute was always American. During my time it was Howard Raiffa, a great guy in decisions, who was a professor in the School of Government at Harvard before he became the founding director of IIASA. He passed away a few months ago in 2017, in his 90s.

On returning to Hungary I worked in the research institute for water management, on river flow forecasting. I still specialise in that very narrow field. After that, I started to consult for the United Nations, with the World Meteorological Organization. They sent me to Bangladesh to work with a few colleagues in Dhaka, developing a flood forecasting system for the Ganges and Brahmaputra river network. It was 1981, and the first 8-bit computers had just appeared.

One day the snowmelt came down from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal and was blocked by the tides — the sea acted as a wall — and so the meltwater caused what we call ‘backwater flooding’, which is upstream flooding caused by downstream conditions. We calculated it all pretty precisely. We knew just what was going to happen in the next 24 hours, but we could not communicate that message to the public.

Not only was there a high degree of illiteracy among the village people, but we also had no communication tools to reach even the rich people and the village leaders, and we had no understanding of ways in which news is spread in a Bangladeshi community.

It was a major disaster. Nearly 100,000 people were killed by the flood — Bangladesh is absolutely flat. That was an awful experience. After it was over, I thought: I may have developed the nicest possible computer model of this flood but if I’m not able to communicate that information to the public because I don’t understand how their society functions, then the whole thing is totally useless. Unless I’m able to somehow bring together international help to those countries, then my existence as a hydrologist is nothing. I saw that perhaps the place to work in the United Nations.

In 1989 I joined UNESCO and was given the opportunity to lead the International Hydrological Programme — a major research and education program in water. I was the secretary of that program for 20 years. It is inter-governmental, and the largest science program in water, with nearly 160 national committees in various countries. The program’s objective was basically to coordinate research, and to contribute to peacebuilding, or avoidance of potential conflicts, by facilitating cooperation amongst nations in science, education and culture. The objective recognised that because water doesn’t see borders, and will become a scarce commodity as populations grow, it may become a source of conflict

I was given the opportunity to build up the program, with wonderful colleagues and great support, particularly in the 1990s when Koichiro Matsuura was the Director-General. He could see that very soon that water is going to be one of the most critical, if not the most critical issues of the 21st Century. He grabbed the opportunity to have UNESCO make really significant contributions, and one of the spin-offs was the World Water Assessment Programme.

The foundations for the IHP had been laid in the 1960s, with UNESCO and the IHD, the International Hydrological Decade, which began on 1 January 1965. That was a decade of international cooperation, at the height of the Cold War, and it had two objectives. One was to know how much water we have on the Earth, and how is it distributed in space and time. The other was to build the scientific foundations of water resources management.

In those days many computational barriers seemed to be insurmountable. We couldn’t even find numerical solutions for hydrodynamic equations, very simple partial differential equations. There was gradual improvement through the fundamental contributions made during the IHD, through two schools of thought: the Anglo Saxon approach was analytical, trying to apply hydraulics and hydrodynamics in understanding, modelling and forecasting the hydrological processes; meanwhile, the Soviets were outstanding in continental hydrology, with some strategic considerations behind that approach. The two schools hardly talked to one another, and in that regard, UNESCO had a very important function.

By 1989 when I joined, the groundwork was in place, and my challenge was to avoid making big mistakes. The five people in the team when I arrived (aged about 39) were all my seniors, in their mid-60s. One of my first tasks, therefore, was to bring in fresh minds and fresh thinking. Fortunately, we built up a great team and we had absolutely fantastic support, in both budget and resources, from Matsuura and the Japanese Government. The World Water Assessment Programme started in 2000.

Tell us about the World Water Assessment Programme

The idea of having a World Water Assessment Programme began back in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development – the Earth summit at Rio de Janeiro. That was a milestone time in environmental affairs. It was when the first climate agreement was signed, known as ‘Agenda 21’. Lots of new things were opening up. The governments agreed that in five years’ time they would have a look at the progress made.

So in 1997, the General Assembly of the United Nations examined the various recommendations arising from the work of the previous five years, and how much progress had been made, and they came to the conclusion that water was, by and large, a forgotten commodity. That was the first time the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution, and it said that action needs to be taken to understand how much water we have, and what sort of social pressures and environmental pressures are being exercised on that resource. Unless you understand that, you run the risk that major uncertainty will develop and perhaps water will become an important issue.

Therefore, the UN General Assembly invited the UN System to come up with a regular assessment of the resource. That was in 1997. Nothing happened for two years, because nobody had the money. Then, I remember, we were down in Beirut in Lebanon, at one of the annual meetings of the UN-Water Directors, and I suggested that perhaps we should do, like the UN, a comprehensive assessment on how water and various sectors of the socio-economic system are interconnected. And perhaps we should develop indicators to measure the degree of this interconnectedness: for instance, how water and disasters are interconnected; how water and public health; how water and food security; how water and energy security; how water and climate variability are interconnected. We could measure that linkage between the two sectors, water and other parts of the socioeconomic system, by a set of indicators which lie between zero and one. And that would give the political community and the policymaking community some idea of where potential problems lay and where investment was needed. It might be political investments in terms of implementing negotiations, for instance over the transfer of resources, or financial investment to build sustainable plans, or whatever was needed.

I argued that no UN agency can do this job alone. But nobody else can do it except the UN System bodies together. And this was the idea of the World Water Assessment Programme, that it would be a UN System program. All of us, each of us, would bring in an element. UNESCO would bring in Science, FAO would bring in Food, UNIDO would bring in Industrial aspects, the Atomic Energy Agency would bring in groundwater systems, and so on. I proposed a conference, but there was still no money so we had to look for a sponsor … and there I was lucky in knowing Matsuura San.

I suggested to Matsuura that perhaps UNESCO should take the lead because UNESCO has a timeless mandate, the least defined of all the UN agencies because it’s a long-term thinking institution rather than one aiming for short-term fixes. I outlined the whole assessment program, and Matsuura, who was a diplomat by training and a politician, took the initiative. In a famous meeting in The Hague, the Second World Water Forum, he declared in his opening speech that UNESCO was taking the lead to launch the World Water Assessment Programme. That evening, I was not popular with my UN colleagues! Eventually, the Japanese Government gave us $10 million to start work, and I was able to convince my UN colleagues that if they didn’t take part they would become totally irrelevant.

We set up this program and were fortunate to hire Gordon Young, who had been the Secretary-General of the International Association of Hydrological Sciences (IAHS), an outstanding scientist, to lead the process. Gradually we built up the program and it resulted in the publication of the World Water Development series every third year.

This series was very important, because the related activities involved and the links with the political community, as well as the publication itself, enabled us to communicate to the political community that indeed water is going to be an extremely important issue for the 21st Century. The World Water Development Report was 500 pages long, but it and the whole process together acted as an ‘elevator speech’ to the politicians — giving them information that we scientists could not otherwise convey, not having skills in giving short powerful messages.

How does the World Water Assessment Programme lead to action on-ground?

That happens via the World Water Forum series, which is still continuing, run by the World Water Council, which is an NGO. When the various players come together at these forums, we can say things that would not be heard if said by just one person. The next World Water Forum is in March 2018 in Brasilia. It is a huge gathering — 30,000 people. The forum is very effective in bringing together the stakeholders. Scientists are able to connect there to not only the political players but also to the public that we are supposed to serve.

While I’m very proud of the World Water Assessment Programme, there are ups and downs and we are now revitalising it with a new initiative, ‘Water Futures’, which is a part of the major program called Future Earth.

Future Earth explores where we are heading: What’s going to happen? Is it really true that if you go at the same pace, in 80 or 90 years’ time our systems will collapse because of population pressure and climate change impacts?

We have the tools. You may have heard of ‘Water Futures’. It is a program run from Brisbane with nearly 6000 scientists around the world who are working on building up a global model of the water circulation. That is a large amount of data to deal with, from a system that covers the whole globe, with observation data every 500 metres. Of course, those observation data are not ground observations but derived from earth observation systems: satellites and remote sensing.

Over the last ten years or so, computational capabilities have improved so much that now we can compute anything; and we can observe almost anything with satellite systems and remote observations. The combination of the two, and digitalisation, means the community can identify and tell the politicians where there are ‘hot spots’ existing and developing. This is going to be a leap forward.

These days we are seeing the emergence of digital water management, and capacity to work at different scales. Formerly our scale of the operation was large, planetary, and we used global circulation models to see how the atmosphere is changing and how the climate is changing and forecast the impacts of those on the hydrological cycle. Even ten years ago, the spatial distance between two computational points would be more like 500 kilometres than it is these days. Now the points are only 500 metres apart, and that’s because of digital technology. At the planetary scale, you are considering the huge movements of water masses. The other end is the microscale: for example, how you operate a sewage treatment plant and model the water quality of a pond or a lake, and what sort of cultural barriers you have to leap to improve the water quality of small water bodies such as those we have around us day today.

There’s a huge gap between the two scales, and there are 50 shades of grey in between, and how do you jump from one scale to the other? In other words, how do you integrate the systems of various time and space scales into one wholeness? With the emerging Internet of Things we now hope that in five to ten years’ time the bio-geochemical systems, physical systems, social systems, will be all connected, and we will see how these interact.

We need this, because if you look ahead, not far, just 32 years, we expect to have nine billion human beings. The current world population will be living in cities — and the major issue there will be water.

Recently, Anik Bhaduri, who is the Executive Director of the Sustainable Water Future Programme in Australia, and I were in Bangalore, or Bengaluru as it is called now, which is one of the capitals of the Indian IT industry. Take that as an example. The population has grown immensely and there are ten million people living in Bengaluru now. However, the groundwater table has dropped more than 500 metres, and they no longer have access to it. But in 30 years, Bengaluru will be a city of 31 million human beings. That will be a totally new ballgame in terms of how people communicate with one another, and how social security and water security are implemented for that size population. It is going to be a tall order to provide enough water for the people. We are moving in that direction now using digital water management, integrated water management, integrating social, economic and environmental aspects.

Can we have your thoughts about water governance?

The question which I am always asked by politicians or the public is: Is it true that we are running out of water? Well partially, but never fully, because the hydrological cycle is a renewing cycle. But if you look at the past 35 years, the drop in water availability was indeed dramatic globally. Some 35 years ago, grosso modo, on average, there were 15,000 cubic metres of water available per person, per year. Today it is down to 5000: not because we have overused the resource, which is also true, but because of the increasing number of users, a triple exponentially increasing number of users. How do we meet that situation? Everybody says, ‘Oh yeah, there is the sea, and we do desalination’.

Really, a solution for water security requires us to think over how we govern water resources. How do we do it? What sort of institutions have to deal with it? Part of the answer is integrated water management.

That is why lately the issue of water governance has surfaced, where you ask yourself the question: What are the right things to do? Note the difference from water management, where you ask yourself the question: How can we do things right? Those questions are not exactly the same.

There are considerations in water governance that go far beyond water availability and forecasting and management. Some of these considerations include:

  • how to share, particularly in a trans-boundary context; educational issues;
  • research issues;
  • corruption – how do we minimise corruption?;
  • the rule of law in water management.

These kinds of issues were always present, but the water management community by and large avoided those big questions. They require a different kind of knowledge than, say, engineering. These are the big issues that water governance focuses on.

The next Water Forum, in Brasilia, will be devoted to sharing water. So here is the contradiction. On the one hand, you have a finite resource which is exactly the same today as at the beginning, though the number of users has triple exponentially grown since the industrial revolution. Of course, as a net result of that, water available has triple exponentially reduced. How do we resolve that conflict?

If you look at climate data and climate change, roughly 80% of climate change, or more, will be manifested through, with and by water. Probably at the global scale, the hydrological cycle will accelerate. If that is the case, then the probability of the extremes will increase, which means that we will have more frequent flooding, and they will be larger floods. But in order to keep the first law of thermodynamics, or continuity (in other words), at work, we can expect there also to be a negative side to the changes: namely, more or worse droughts in terms of their spatial extent and duration. At the same time, the amount of water will be the same. These are not far off processes, these are processes which are probably already observed and are highly likely by the end of this century.

One concern for water governance is climate change mitigation, and that is the essence of the Paris Agreement, to keep the global average temperature increase to less than two degrees Centigrade. The reason why we need to do that is that if the temperature increases beyond two degrees then perhaps it will set off irreversible processes in terms of the acceleration of the hydrological cycle. That’s the bad news.

How can people in the water sector be more effective in addressing some of these global challenges in the future?

I think we are moving in the right direction in that regard. We have to increase our knowledge base, not only on the availability of water but also on how people are related to water.

Transboundary water

In Europe, what we may refer to as ‘water culture’ has gone. If you ask an average European ‘Where does the water come from?’, their response is: ‘From the tap’. They take it for granted. But that obviously is wrong.

The Africans still have an extremely powerful water culture, based more on anthropology than natural sciences. They look at water totally differently, and that is why, for instance, Africa shows a very positive attitude to transboundary cooperation.

In other parts of the world, upstream and downstream countries are at each other’s throats over how to share water. Around 4 billion people – 40% of humanity – actually live in transboundary basins. Some upstream countries consider water to be their property and they insist upon absolute sovereignty over resources, and they say to the downstream countries: ‘It is none of your business how I use my water resources on my territory’. And that is a source of conflict.

Now, in conflict management, you often ask the parties to look at the source of conflict from different angles, so that they begin to see a different picture. Joint vision-building is very important, and we now hope to develop tools to enable that. These are organisation support tools, mathematical computer models. We need to know how to build those models in a process which helps confidence building, so the parties trust each other.

Without water sharing, what will be the impact on the environment, ecosystems, the groundwater tables of downstream countries? Up to now transboundary water issues have generally meant two parties fighting one another. What we need to move towards is two (or more) parties cooperating with one another. There’s no other way.

Lack of water

Another big challenge is the lack of access to water and sanitation. It’s not a rosy picture at all. At the end of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) period, after 15 years of investing heavily into water supply systems, the former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon declared that we had reached the water supply goal. Its principal objective was to halve the number of people living under absolute poverty, including access to water, compared to the beginning of this century when 1.4 billion people had no access to waterAnd in certain parts of the world, thanks to the policies of China and India, there has been tremendous progress.

However, if you look at sub-Saharan Africa, the situation is not improving. Given the current level of investment in Africa, the MDG for water supply that was supposed to be reached by 2015 will not be reached within 50 years. So there are huge differences.

The situation is even worse when it comes to sanitation. At the beginning of the century, there were 2.4 billion humans who had no access to what you’d call minimum sanitation, very simple systems. This situation is now even worse. We have now 2.6 billion who have no access to minimal sanitation. Again, in sub-Saharan Africa, 90% of disease is a result of the lack of water and sanitation facilities. It is bad, but if you look at it another way, it’s also an investment opportunity.

Now we have the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the UN General Assembly has adopted a water and sanitation goal, SDG6. The goal goes beyond the ordinary WASH — water supply, sanitation, hygiene — agenda, and is now moving towards the integration of systems. That means, integration of water supply, sanitation ecosystem selection, the efficiency of water use, groundwater management.

This current approach is more holistic. It is not easy. Not everybody has access to water, and not everyone has access to sanitation, and we have just 13 years to do amend that situation.

I’m pretty much hopeful that we will get there. Essentially, it all depends on the governments. Principally the issue which was missing before was political will, and now it seems that the political community recognises that they have forgotten about water and that we must do something about it.

For instance, the Secretary-General of the UN and the President of the World Bank have created a very high-level panel consisting of heads of states, to come up with proposals on the financing of water projects. So things are moving on the political front, which is good news. In principle it is doable. Now we need to forge closer relations between the various parties — the scientists, the decision-makers and the practitioners – and for them to stop operating in silos.

Water security

Some big countries still don’t recognise what water security is. Some of them, until recently, declared that security is a military concept, not understanding that water security is not the same as being able to walk at night without being mugged. Water security is a security against the vagaries of water: low flow, high flow, bad water quality and all the rest of it. Luckily the UNESCO international agricultural program has a definition that describes what water security is all about. I remember chairing a political process of the World Water Forum in which the world’s water ministers come together and we try to build their understanding and consensus around the big issues that are ahead, and potential solutions. One issue was the notion of water security. What broke the ice was when those governments were confronted with the UNESCO definition, and told an intergovernmental program with an intergovernmental negotiation process had adopted this resolution.

Yet, a number of governments are still very much against water sharing to achieve water security. They argue they have absolute sovereignty over the resource and what they do with it is no business of other countries.

Our argument in return is that water is not a divider. Water is a connector. We are looking for ways to turn a potential water conflict into the potential for cooperation; to find how water could be used in peacebuilding. In Europe, we’re doing fine, but if you look at what happens in the Middle East in terms of water – the Iraqi situation, the Syrian situation – it’s literally a matter of life and death.

Is there enough water if we use it wisely?

Yes, we have enough water, never mind these doomsday people who say, ‘we’re going to be all killed because there is no water left’. There is a huge amount of water, with 90% of it under the ground. But groundwater resources are extremely vulnerable and once they are polluted then we cannot use it because it takes millions until the sub-purification process takes its effect. In contrast to surface waters, there is no technology that can be applied to purify water at a mass scale. Think of a large aquifer such as the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer under the Sahara. It is the biggest amount of water that we have in the world, but it’s fossilised water, so using it is effectively mining it. The more you pump out for people, the lower the elevation of the groundwater table. That is happening in Beijing for example. The Chinese are transferring Yangtze River water to Beijing, not just for fun. They have two options: either they take Beijing to the Yangtze River where there is good flow, or they take the Yangtze waters to Beijing, where there are more people. They’ve opted for the latter, because Beijing became almost unliveable in terms of water availability, and that is a huge issue.

Please tell us briefly about the High-Level Panels on Water.

Currently, there are three separate High-Level Panels, although they communicate. Earlier I mentioned the High-Level Panel of Heads of States. The Presidents of Mauritius and Mexico are leading a panel of some 10 presidents, including the President of Hungary. This panel is dealing with financing issues — such as by setting up a fund, or a global water bank — to help developing countries finance their problems. There’s another High-Level Panel on Water and Disasters. South-East Asia is the region most affected by water disasters, particularly in terms of flooding. The Japanese and the Koreans are very sensitive about it, so they are working on recommendations for disaster management, based on a previous UN document, the Sendai Framework, and others. These two panels are still at work.

The third panel is called the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace. I was on it as a scientist. It’s a 15-member panel led by the former Slovenian President, Danilo Türk, and it includes a couple of Prime Ministers, a few Environmental Ministers, a French General who was involved in the French Army water supply operations and understands the protection of critical water infrastructure against terrorism and in war situations. That panel has completed its work. It produced a 100-page volume which contains a set of recommendations: you can find it by googling ‘A Matter of Survival’. The recommendations are rather strong in relation to transboundary cooperation, and in terms of having access during military skirmishes and wars. Water can be used as a weapon, for instance, by building reservoirs or water supply networks. The volume looks at some very fundamental questions that had not really been looked at by the engineering community. It’s quite an interesting report. Among its major recommendations are: Don’t weaponise water; Water is a peacebuilder; Consider the role of data; transboundary data should be openly accessible, or databases ought to be opened up.

Even today, when it comes to transboundary issues, many countries consider data on river discharge to be classified, and they don’t tell downstream countries when floods are on the way. The downstream country only knows about the flood when they are flooded, because there was no exchange of data beforehand, nor an exchange of forecasts.

Sometimes this situation is still used as a form of blackmail. If you own the data and you don’t share it with downstream countries unless the downstream country does certain things you want them to do, then that is blackmail.

This will change, thanks to technology, perhaps in just five years’ time. We already have two dozen environmental satellites that are capable of measuring flow velocity, and those data combined with the digital elevation data enable an estimate of the river flow discharge. That’s a totally new ballgame because it means that secrecy about upstream water resources will be gone. It is technology providing a totally new opportunity that could contribute to peace-building instead of war.

The report I mentioned is dealing with transboundary water cooperation, diplomatic approaches, strengthening the knowledge base, and data-driven decisions with open-access databases. In fact, the Australians have a major initiative on sharing and access to global data sets which is almost complete and will be presented to the public at the Brazilian World Water Forum in March after monthly meetings of the High-Level Panel on Water.

Is there any other topic you’d like to tell us about?

I would like to leave on an optimistic note: namely, that water should not be a source of conflict. Instead, it is a potential source of cooperation, and that’s how negotiation tools in foreign ministries ought to be developed. There needs to be a new whole subject called Water Diplomacy.

Using soft diplomacy, as a new means of moving towards water security, is very important. Ultimately technology is not the answer, although it is part of the answer. A large part of the answer depends on how water and society are interconnected, and how much we understand that interconnection, and how much that interconnection can be embedded in national and global politics.

The degree of uncertainty has increased, with nationalism and xenophobia and terrible things happening in recent times. I hope it’s a transient phenomenon, and that it will not lead to a conflict, especially a global conflict that none of us will survive. I hope that normalcy will prevail, and thinking will prevail … and in that thinking process, water has a very important role.

There are some politicians who deny climate change. Come on! Go back to elementary school and learn a little bit! Those are dangerous tendencies, and that is why personally I believe that it is very important that all of us, whether scientists and engineers, policymakers, politicians or communication people, work together. The situation is too serious to play games around water.

About Prof. András Szöllösi-Nagy

When András was young he was a self-confessed degree collector and completed three doctorates:

  1. The first was in mathematical modelling of hydrological processes from the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. This evolved into a very powerful tool for modelling global water circulation processes.
  2. After graduating he joined the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria to specialise in systems science. The director of the Institute was Howard Raiffa, who was a mathematician famous for his work on decision science and conflict resolution.
  3. Following this, András returned to Hungary to work on river flow management control systems at VITUKI (Hungarian Institute for Water Research).

Source: Budapest Water Summit

András also discussed being placed on a mission to Bangladesh to develop a flood forecasting systems for the Ganges and Brahmaputra river networks. During this time, large snowmelt came from the Himalayas and became backed up in Bangladesh’s estuary system by the Bay of Bengal causing a major process of ‘backwater flooding’. The flow forecasting system András worked on, calculated this precisely, however they were limited in their ability to communicate this. It was not possible to avert a major disaster.

UNESCO and the International Hydrological Program

In 1989, András received the opportunity to lead a major water research and education program with UNESCO called the International Hydrological Program. It is now the largest intergovernmental science program in water. The program coordinates research between 160 National Committees in different countries.

András was a founding member of the IHP and initiated many programs the water sector takes for granted today, such as the World Water Assessment Report. It stemmed from work done as part of the UNESCO International Hydrological Decade (IHD) in 1965, which had two objectives:

  1. To determine the amount of water on earth and how is it distributed spatially and temporally
  2. To build the scientific foundations of water resources management.

The report “Water and man: a world view” shows are far these concepts have been developed. In the early 1960s, it was not even possible to solve simple hydrodynamic equations due to computing power.

The idea of the World Water Assessment program came from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which was a milestone agreement in environmental affairs. This was the same summit that the Rio-Dublin principles for Integrated Water Management were developed for.

The need for good communication

The pitch of the 1st World Water Assessment, “Water for People, Water for Life” was 500 pages long, however, the message about water development though was really meant to be an ‘elevator speech’ to politicians.

This was the impetus for András to form a role with the World Water Council. He wanted to organise a party, where the various water players come together in a multi-stakeholder dialogue. The World Water Forum was developed as a result and the 8th forum will be held March 2018 in Brasilia.

The Sustainable Water Future Programme is another strategy that András is involved with aimed at communicating about the future direction of water. The office is located in Brisbane and is a collaboration of scientists who are building a global model of water circulation using observation data from satellites and remote sensing. This enables meaningful communication that can identify to politicians, hot spots that need financing and attention.

Digital water management

András referred to the emergence of digital water management and how different scales of information can now be combined. Previously, the scale of data was planetary and below that, global circulation models of how the atmosphere and climate were changing could only predict large scale impacts on the hydrological cycle. Ten years ago, the spatial scale of data was 500 kilometres but now this is down to 500 metres.

This enables us to integrate the planetary scale movements of water with the microscale of issues such as how you operate the sewage treatment plant? Or how you model the water quality of a pond or a lake, and what sort of cultural barriers are there to improving water quality?

There is a huge gap between these two scales and it is an emerging internet of things.

András refers to the future scenario of Bengaluru in India. There are 12 million people in Bengaluru now and the groundwater table has dropped significantlyand there is already conflicts over access. By 2031, Bengaluru will have 20.3 million inhabitants. Digital water management provides a totally new scenario for how people might communicate with one another for social and water security and the question is what it is the correct way to apply this?

Water scarcity and water governance

Over the past 35 years, there has been a dramatic drop in per capita water availability, because of the increasing number of users. The next Water Forum in Brasilia will be devoted to the sort of institutions required to govern water resources.

András suggests that shared vision building is very important as 40% of humanity lives in a transboundary context and a positive water culture is essential. There is a need for decision support models that build trust between countries. Cooperation is the only way.

After the MDG process was completed, the UN adopted a water and sanitation goal (SDG6) that is more holistic and moves toward the integration of systems such as water supply, sanitation, ecosystems, water use efficiency, and groundwater management.

Water as a connector not a source of conflict

András argues that “Water connects, it is not a divider. So the question is how can we flip potential water conflict into a cooperation potential?” Andrá referred to the case of Iraq and Syria where achieving this is literally a matter of life and death.

He adds that “the thing is that there is enough water”. Huge amounts of water are available, particularly from groundwater. However, groundwater resources are vulnerable. He gives the example of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer under the Sahara as one of the largest preserved volumes of groundwater in the world. However, it is fossil water and receives very little recharge so it is basically mined transboundary water.

He also mentions the case of Beijing and the diversion Yangtze River River. He says “the Chinese are not transferring water from the Yangtze River to Beijing for fun. “They have one of two options. Either they transfer Beijing to the river to increase its flow, or they divert the river to Beijing, where there are too many people and Beijing had become almost unliveable in terms of water availability”.

High-level panels on water

András refers to three high-level panels on water:

1.The High-level Panel on Financing Infrastructure for a Water Secure World.

2.The High-Level Panel on Water and Disasters

3.The Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace

András was involved with the third panel who released a publication called A Matter of Survival. One recommendation in this report is that transboundary water data should be openly accessible. Even now this is not always the case nut this will change due to environmental satellite technology. The report discusses transboundary water cooperation, soft diplomatic approaches, strengthening knowledge and data-driven decisions through open-access databases.

András also referred to an Australians-led contribution to the High-level Panel on Water called the World Water Data Initiative, which is referred to in an interview with Tony Slatyer, which is a major initiative on global data sets and open access to that data and will be presented at the Brazilian World Water Forum in March.

András take-home message

Water is the major issue, however, “ Water does not have to be a source of conflict, water is a potential source of cooperation, and that’s how negotiation tools in foreign ministries need to be developed”. Using water diplomacy as a means to obtain water security is very important. Technology is only part of the answer. The large part of the answer depends on how water and society are interconnected and how much that interconnection can be understood and embedded in national and global politics.

Interview quotes


This interview and related content was originally part of the Kini Interview Series. Kini is a retired brand of the AWP and IWCAN.


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