On 26 May 2015, Chad Staddon and Chris Scott of the IWSN and Bruce Lankford of the Water Security Research Centre at University of East Anglia hosted three sessions exploring the many meanings of the ‘water security concept’ at the XVth IWRA World Water Congress in Edinburgh.
Over the course of the day, 17 papers were presented by scientists from all over the world and participants discussed how this essentially contested concept can be imbued with scientifically valid and socially progressive purpose and meaning.
It was interesting to see how papers operated at different spatial scales, with some comprising more purely ‘local’ case studies of water security or insecurity. In particular, John Colvin (Emerald Network), Dorice Agol (University of East Anglia) and Nick Hepworth (Water Witness International) all talked about ongoing work with communities in southern Africa and all reinforced the necessity of long-term engagement with communities and the need to link water security programmes with land tenure.
These empirical insights linked up in different ways with the more ‘integrationist’ theoretical perspectives presented by Mark Zeitoun (University of East Anglia), Bruce Lankford (University of East Anglia) and Bimo Nkhata (Monash University, South Africa). Zeitoun pointed out that reducing water security to simple indicators or scalar variables risks missing out on the fundamental relations and holistic essence of water security in practice – for example, the crucial links between tenure, access and control over local water resources. Sarah Wade pointed out that most indicators proposed thus far neglected to include any measures of distributional inequalities in water services – this was agreed by all to be a major omission.
Relations between different scales of water security studies was another strong theme in the sessions. Robert Varady (University of Arizona) pointed out that water security research often involves working not just across boundaries, but across international boundaries. When this is the case, ‘local’ water management issues between adjacent communities can become ‘nationalised’ or ‘internationalised’, as with management of rivers that cross the US-Mexico border. In such cases it is crucial that institutional arrangements emerge that take both sides equally seriously, and that there is a shared science base. This also applies to shared groundwater resources, which Sharon Megdal (University of Arizona) spoke about, noting that such institutions are also critical for water management planning that is adaptive to social and climatic change. Several speakers, including Megdal, observed that groundwater is too often neglected in our thinking about water security.
Staddon, Langberg and Sarkozi’s paper suggested that it is possible to locate cities along a developmental continuum defined by water services, using indicators similar to those presented by Fu Sun of the Asia-Pacific Centre for Water Security Research. Virginia Hooper offered an important cautionary tale: often our indicators and intentional water trade-offs bring with them unintentional consequences – for example, when one district’s water efficiency drive reduces water availability in an adjacent district. Bruce Lankford and Chris Scott both explored, in different ways, the relations between water, energy and food – what is now commonly known as the water-energy-food nexus – and there was some discussion about the nexus idea amongst attendees.
The papers were very stimulating and three hours was not nearly enough time to explore them properly – conversations spilled out of the room at the end of the sessions and continued throughout the week!