Proposal for the creation of an IGU Commission for Water Sustainability

1. Justification

1.1 Context

Water Sustainability is at the forefront of current concerns in the UN and UNESCO. The international Ministerial Conference on ‘Water Security in the 21st Century’ held in The Hague, The Netherlands in March 2000 led to the following statement:

Water resources, and the related ecosystems that provide and sustain them, are under threat from pollution, unsustainable use, land-use changes, climate change and many other forces. The link between these threats and poverty is clear, for it is the poor who are hit first and hardest. This leads to one simple conclusion: business as usual is not an option. There is, of course, a huge diversity of needs and situations around the globe, but together we have one common goal: to provide water security in the 21st Century. This means ensuring that freshwater, coastal and related ecosystems are protected and improved; that sustainable development and political stability are promoted, that every person has access to enough safe water at an affordable cost to lead a healthy and productive life and that the vulnerable are protected from the risks of water-related hazards.

Ministers called upon the Secretary General of the United Nations to further strengthen the co-ordination and coherence of activities on water issues within the UN system. And they offered to adopt consistent positions in the respective governing bodies to enhance coherence in these activities.

Global water resources are currently being exploited and over-exploited at unprecedented levels. Levels of exploitation are fast approaching the limit of available resources in many parts of North Africa, the Middle East, and northern China. Many existing and planned solutions threaten the environment at scales from the local to the regional, and in the case of the recurring proposals of the North American Water and Power Alliance even continental.

Questions of water quality may be as important as quantity, as the poor environmental record of the former COMECON countries has shown, not only for sustainable water supplies but also for a sustainable environment. Indeed, the degradation of water quality due to poor treatment of wastes or bad land management practices can amount to a loss of available water resources.

Issues of sustainability are not limited to the maintenance of water supplies or the shortage of water. They are also very much concerned with how we respond to flood hazards and with the balance between “hard” engineering solutions on the one hand and “soft” solutions, like planning controls on floodplain settlement or early warning systems, on the other. There is room here for collaboration with the proposed Commission on Hazards.

1.2. The role of a Geographical commission: why this should be a key activity in an International Geographical Union

The issues of water sustainability engage the full spectrum of geographical skills from physical processes to economic and social studies, with spatial diversity, environmental change and protection, and questions of national wealth and development at the very core. This is a valuable opportunity for collaboration within the discipline, to broaden the outlook of our specialists on all sides of the subject, and to demonstrate the strengths of our combined approach on issues of major current global concern to colleagues in other disciplines.

Furthermore, a key issue in achieving water sustainability that has been identified by UNESCO on a number of recent occasions is the transfer of experience, technology, understanding and expertise between nations. This has always been a central concern for the IGU, and we would aim for a two-way flow; both high-tech and low-tech solutions may have their place and exchanging understanding of why things fail is as important as success stories.


2. Aims of the Commission

The Commission will aim to foster closer links between the human and physical aspects of water management, with specific concern for the sustainability of water resources and for the impacts of water management on the environment.

2.1 Specific Objectives

The Commission will focus on developing research is the following areas:

1) A world inventory of water resources for sustainability

The chairman has already been commissioned by Hodder, the publishers of the UNEP Atlas of Desertification, to produce an Atlas of World Water Resources. Applications have been submitted to ICSU/IGU and the British Leverhulme Trust for research grants. This is seen as a key publication for the Commission, likely to be published in 2003. The content of the Atlas will be far-ranging and include ‘novel’ issues like water trading and hydropolitics as well as regional resources and fluxes. See Appendix for a brief summary of its scope.

2) Study of adaptation and measures to enable sustainability

This will range from ‘primitive’ methods, such as water harvesting, to modern ‘advanced’ techniques, including ‘real time’ monitoring, modelling and warning systems, and relate these to the local livelihood/life-style to ensure sustainability. The current Study Group is in the process of editing a Special Issue of the Kluwer journal Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, based on papers delivered at its last three conferences, which is likely to be published in 2001. This work will continue under the Commission.

3) Water sustainability for the environment

Study of the two-way relationship between water and the environment, covering issues of integrated catchment planning, wetlands restoration, groundwater abstraction, river channel engineering and the impact of dams large and small. Links with engineers and ecologists will be important here. Recent experiments with recreating floods on ‘over-engineered’ reservoir catchments, for example, on the Colorado, and recreation of wetlands on the upper Missouri and the Lower Rhine are just two interesting aspects of the increasing awareness of a need return river systems to a more natural state. A big question is how far back the retro-(bio)engineering should go.

4) Hydrologic modelling for planning and impact studies of water sustainability in a changing environment

Particular emphasis will be placed on separating the effects of atmospheric change and land surface change, both of which may contain elements of natural and anthropogenic causes. Most predictions for the effects of global warming in the century ahead suggest that extreme events will become more common. Landuse changes associated with climate change may intensify these effects, e.g. desertification. Other landuse changes driven by social, political and economic forces have a similar capacity for altering riverflow and groundwater regimes.

This will continue many of the themes currently being addressed in the IGU Study Group on Environmental Change and Extreme Hydrological Events. Both floods and droughts raise important issues for sustainability. A number of members of the current Study Group, especially the teams led by Heinz-Theo Mengelkamp (Geesthacht), Axel Bronstert (Potsdam) and H K Barth (Paderborn), have contributed valuable innovations to modelling in this field.

The current Study Group is in the process of editing a Special Issue of the Wiley journal Hydrological Processes focused specifically on modelling climate change effects and another Special issue of the Elsevier journal Geomorphology covering historical links between environmental change and extreme riverflows. Both are based on papers offered at Study Group meetings, the latter juxtaposing geomorphological evidence, much of it given by members of the independent Fluvial Archives Research Group, and historical climatological evidence. Many members were also involved in the book Regional Hydrological Response to Climate Change published by the previous Study Group.

An important inter-Commission link here will be with the proposed new IGU Commission on Hazards under Richard Dickau. Dr Dickau has already expressed an interest in holding joint meetings.

5) Quantifying water sustainability

Interest has also been expressed in collaborating to try to develop a quantitative method of defining sustainability in the context of water resources. Professor Xia Jun has just published a paper in an IAHS red book entitled “Eco-environmental quality assessment: a quantifying method and case study” and is keen to develop a similar approach to this question. There is no doubt that this would be a useful aid to assessing the success of sustainability schemes. There are also many difficulties that will need to be overcome. Some of the issues are discussed in the Appendix. This could well form a useful theme for a Task Force.


3. Activities

The first conference is planned for July 2001 in Zaragoza, Spain, hosted by the Instituto Pirenaico de Ecología. The Institute will include a trip to the Pyrenees to study the effects of afforestation and land abandonment on hydrological processes and water quality. It is also planned to collaborate at this meeting with the Hydrographic Authority for the Ebro basin, with whom we have had contact in the past, and include fieldtrips to their dam sites and the Zaragoza water treatment facility and a study of the effects of recent urban growth and expanded irrigation on water quality in the Ebro and Gallego Rivers.

The first major collaborative project will be the Atlas of World Water Resources. A summary of its contents is given in section 7.


4. Links with other research programmes

4.1 Commission on Hazards

Dialogue will be maintained with the Commission on Hazards with a view to a joint meeting early in the period and hopefully some joint publications.

4.2 International Association of Hydrological Sciences

We maintain close links with the International Association of Hydrological Sciences through the current President, John Rodda, and Secretary-General, Pierre Hubert, both of whom attended the conference organised by the chair in Aberystwyth this July and are interested in the work of the IGU water group and in the Atlas; as also is the President-designate, Kuniyoshi Takeuchi. Some exchange of material for the Atlas has been discussed.

4.3 UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology

Links are increasing with the former UK Institute of Hydrology, now renamed the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. They collaborated with the publication of the Proceedings of the Aberystwyth conference this July on managing water resources for the 21st century. The chair is on one of the Centre’s committees and is involved in mutual proposals to collaborate in water balance studies in two of the Centre’s research catchments. The link offers another route for publication and research links, and improving the professional profile of IGU.

4.4. Groups in Fluvial Geomorphology

Although the Commission’s prime interests will be a little more distant from those of the FLAG ‘river history’ group and of IGBP/PAGES compared with the present Study Group, their interest in extreme events and land/water relationships are clearly apposite to the Commission’s work and continued dialogue will be maintained, especially through Mark Machlin (Aberystwyth) and Des Walling and Tony Brown (Exeter), respectively.

4.5. The WMO/ICSU Global Energy and Water Cycle Experiment (GEWEX)

The Vice-chair is Principal Investigator in the largest GEWEX experiment in Canada, and other members are involved in parallel experiments in their own countries. The Commission will maintain close contact with developments in this field.


5. Education

The Atlas is seen as a major educational tool and the basis for future teaching material at all levels. Although this will be an expensive publication, there should be opportunities for a smaller ‘pocket’ teaching version later on and this will be discussed with the publisher.