World Water Day

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Understanding Social-Hydrological Systems: Let’s make cases of diversity a research opportunity

By Thomas Bolognesi, author of Modernization and Urban Water Governance and series editor of Palgrave Studies in Water Governance: Policy and Practice

Diversity of water crises

Today, we all agree that the water crisis is a wicked problem. Triggers and outcomes are various, encompassing water quantity and quality, risks, rivalries and so on. 

Further to this complexity related to multidimensionality, causalities are multidirectional; triggers are outcomes and outcomes are triggers. Let me take a school case. According to the World Health Organization: “Contaminated drinking water is estimated to cause 502,000 diarrhoeal deaths each year”. Investing in water institutions and infrastructures is likely to affect development pathways positively (Dadson et al., 2017). Facilitating irrigation or access to water supply contributes to people being healthier. Alternatively, we know that low literacy rates and high vulnerability to water-related diseases could lock a country in a poverty trap, preventing investment in water institutions and infrastructures. What should be the instrument and the goal of a policy aiming at breaking this vicious circle? School policy for water access, or the opposite? Maybe both!

This question of the causes and consequences of the water crisis have, at least, as many responses as cases. The water crisis is made of water crises that are context-dependent, in time and space. For instance, water security literature aims at comprehending the multidimensionality of the puzzle, but facing this context-dependency the literature is fragmented into numerous place-based research (Gerlak et al., 2018). We accumulate fine-grained observations, but it remains a hard-task to draw more general conclusions. 

Diversity as an opportunity for comparative analyses

I argue that the scientific community experienced, in recent years, two crucial turning points allowing us to take advantage of dimensions and contexts diversity. The first turning point is the development of new methodologies in comparative analyses. It improves the reliability and accuracy of causal mechanisms identification. The second is a noticeable improvement of our ability to carry out interdisciplinary research, thanks to both learning-by-doing processes and wider institutional recognition of interdisciplinary research. 

These two turning points make the diversity of water situations a valuable input for comparative analyses aiming at generalisable findings. We are now able to investigate the relationships between the many diverse components of water-related social-ecological systems. The focus on these relationships should emphasise regularities. We could identify and characterise the limited number of phenomena occurring in a plethora of situations, and thus generate new knowledge about the water crises.

New avenues to take advantages from diversity

I will highlight three approaches, with examples of methods. Firstly, spatial observation reveals to be powerful in combining environmental and social variables. To what extent do water markets reduce water scarcity and water shortage, and under what conditions? To answer the question, we need numerous cases, and spatial observation significantly facilitates the same measurement of water scarcity among cases and throughout the years. New technologies like the Data Cube make “Analysis Ready Data” accessible to social scientists in terms of longitude and spatial observation (Bolognesi, Gerlak, & Giuliani, 2018). Using this methodology, we could accurately identify the effect of social components, e.g. policy instruments, on environmental components, and policy outcomes.

Secondly, relational approaches allow for observing the connectivity of a social-ecological system. As many ecologists argued, connectivity is of primary importance because it shapes resilience and vulnerability (Gunderson & Holling, 2002). With relational approaches, such as social network analysis, we could observe the level of connectivity between institutions, actors and resource characteristics and test how it affects water pollution for instance (Ingold et al., 2018).

Thirdly, content-analysis allows us to address linkages between policy content and water issues. We know we need policies to coordinate water users, but all policies are not equivalent. They adopt different ways of resolving a problem; they even define the problem differently. The Good Ecological Status defined by the European Water Framework Directive is a norm, which might be different in other places or at other periods (Bouleau & Pont, 2015). How the meaning of a policy impacts on the environment; or reversely how the meaning we give to an environmental issue, let say water security, affects the policy design? Methods like the Narrative Policy Framework (Crow & Jones, 2018) or semi-automated coding of institutional characteristics (Heikkila & Weible, 2018) helps in comparing the content of numerous water policies and its linkages with water security dimensions.

To conclude, I emphasised that there are promising avenues to address the water crisis in its complexity without sacrificing the search for transferable knowledge. Reading my thoughts, you have seen that interdisciplinary favours achieving this objective, simply because relevant data, methods and concepts to comprehend social-hydrological systems do not care about discipline frontiers.


WHO Drinking-water key facts:, accessed on March 20th, 2019.

Bolognesi, T., Gerlak, A. K., & Giuliani, G. (2018). Explaining and Measuring Social-Ecological Pathways: The Case of Global Changes and Water Security. Sustainability, 10(12), 4378.

Bouleau, G., & Pont, D. (2015). Did you say reference conditions? Ecological and socio-economic perspectives on the European Water Framework Directive. Environmental Science & Policy, 47(Supplement C), 32–41.

Crow, D., & Jones, M. (2018). Narratives as tools for influencing policy change. Policy & Politics, 46(2), 217–234.

Dadson, S., Hall, J. W., Garrick, D., Sadoff, C., Grey, D., & Whittington, D. (2017). Water security, risk, and economic growth: Insights from a dynamical systems model. Water Resources Research, 53(8), 6425–6438.

Gerlak, A. K., House-Peters, L., Varady, R. G., Albrecht, T., Zúñiga-Terán, A., de Grenade, R. R., … Scott, C. A. (2018). Water security: A review of place-based research. Environmental Science & Policy, 82, 79–89.

Gunderson, L. H., & Holling, C. S. (2002). Panarchy Understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Washington: Island Press.

Heikkila, T., & Weible, C. M. (2018). A semiautomated approach to analyzing polycentricity. Environmental Policy and Governance, 28(4), 308–318.

Ingold, K., Moser, A., Metz, F., Herzog, L., Bader, H.-P., Scheidegger, R., & Stamm, C. (2018). Misfit between physical affectedness and regulatory embeddedness: The case of drinking water supply along the Rhine River. Global Environmental Change, 48, 136–150.

About the author

Thomas Bolognesi is a senior researcher at the University of Geneva and member of the UNESCO Chairs programme in Hydropolitics. His fields of research include political economy and institutional and organizational economics.

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