IWSN at UNESCO in a time of change

On 18-20 October 2017, the International Water Security Network (IWSN) was represented by Robert Varady of the University of Arizona and Chad Staddon of the University of the West of England at an event organised and hosted in Paris by UNESCO’s International Hydrological Program (IHP). The Knowledge Forum on Water Security and Climate Change: Innovative solutions for sustainable water resources management, was funded by the Government of Flanders and attended by about 90 people.

The forum took place at a time of consequential change for UNESCO, the UN’s scientific, educational, and cultural arm.

On 13 October, just five days before the start of the forum, UNESCO’s executive board voted for a new Director-General, Audrey Azoulay of France. The day before her election, the United States announced its decision to withdraw from UNESCO in 2018 – something the nation had done once before, between 1984 and 2003. It was thus in a climate of hope on the one hand (in anticipation of new leadership), and concern and uncertainty on the other hand (on account of the upcoming departure of UNESCO’s largest and wealthiest member).

But although there was some sparse discussion of those developments among the participants, the forum proceeded normally, unaffected by the news. The general sentiment seemed to be that UNESCO will carry on as before, albeit with a new person at the helm. After all, U.S. financial support had been withdrawn in 2013 and the organisation has managed to continue executing its mission.

Opening session. Left to right: Anil Mishra (UNESCO-IHP), Blanca Jimenez
(Dir., Div. of Water Science, UNESCO, and Secretary, IHP), Flavia Schlegel
(UNESCO Asst. D-G for Natural Sciences), Dries Willems (Govt. of Flanders),
Abou Amani (UNESCO-IHP). (Photo by UNESCO).

Although the forum opened with comments by two high-ranking UNESCO officials – Flavia Schlegel, the Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences, and Blanca Jimenez, the Director of the Division of Water Sciences and Secretary of the International Hydrological Program – neither person mentioned the new D-G or the U.S. pullout.

The forum offered an uncommonly rich opportunity for networking among scholars, practitioners, NGO representatives, and government officials who share strong interests on water security, particularly as it relates to climate change.

Several active networks participated in the three-day program and the IWSN was prominently represented. Varady and Staddon jointly presented a talk, Two International Water Security Networks: The International Water Security Network (IWSN); and AQUASEC, the IAI Center for Excellence for Water Security in the Americas on the first day of the event. Then, on 20 October, in a session on science diplomacy, Varady gave a second presentation on a 2017 IWSN-supported event, Outcomes of the 2017 University of Arizona Conference on Science Diplomacy and Policy (the full agenda is here).

The organisers of the Forum, Anil Mishra and Koen Verbist, both IHP scientists, designed a program centered on the concept of water security, with a strong emphasis on knowledge sharing among diverse groups of exponents. Sessions included scientific approaches such as advanced modelling, use of innovative technologies, and integrated analysis; examples of citizen science; lessons from on-the-ground projects around the world; expected impacts of and adaptation to climate change; and as noted, the use of water diplomacy as an instrument for increasing security. The event also featured a lively session on ‘Youth in the Global Water and Climate Discussion’.

For IWSN, the Forum offered multiple opportunities for strengthening existing linkages – such as with the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research, already a longtime sponsor of the University of Arizona’s work in the Americas; and IHP itself. In addition, IWSN looks forward to productive, new collaborations with other active water-security networks such as UNESCO’s G-WADI Global Network for Drylands, the Centers for Natural Resources and Development in Germany, the AU-NEPAD Centres of Excellence on Water Science of the EU, and the Water Division of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). To that end, Robert Varady will be spending part of his spring 2018 sabbatical at IIASA and at IHP.