James E. Nickum, who is Vice President of IWRA and Editor-in-Chief of its journal, Water International, penned an article, 'Revsiting Water Paradigms', for the current copy of the IWRA newsletter (download below). I have taken the liberty of posting the article below. The title is a subtheme of the upcoming IWRA XVth World Water Congress in Edinburgh, 25-29 May 2015.
Water scarcity, water governance, water security, water productivity, virtual water, water footprints, green water, IWRM, hydrocentricity, hydrocracy, hydro-hegemony, hydrosolidarity, water grabs, resilience, river basin trajectories, water poverty, the water-food-energy nexus, water justice, adaptive management....It would be tempting to say that the water world is being inundated with a flood of concepts, frames, even paradigms, except that eventually floods recede. With new terms, there is no sign of aba- tement.
Hence it is timely for ‘revisiting water paradigms’ to be designated a subtheme of the XVth World Water Congress. In order to keep from being swamped, we need not only to be aware of the strengths and limitations of the words we use, but also to consider how and why we use them.
The stakes are high. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman (2011: 277) has warned that “once you have accepted a theory and used it as a tool in your thinking, it is extraordinarily difficult to notice its flaws. If you come upon an observation that does not seem to fit the model, you assume that there must be a perfectly good explanation that you are somehow missing. You give the theory the benefit of the doubt, trusting the community of experts who have accepted it.”
Once in a great while there has been a challenge to the hegemony of terms, such as the critical analyses of IWRM written by Biswas (2004) [the second most cited article in Water International] and Molle (2008), or of water crisis by Rogers et al. (2006). More often there have been attempts to give them some practi- cal content and coherence, for example, Grigg’s well-reasoned 2008 overview of IWRM, which is still the most read article online in Water International. Despite their popularity, these efforts have done little to deter the continued, profligate, and unreflective use of terms new and no longer so new.
Hence it is a pleasure to read the recently published marvellous little volume edited by Lautze (2014) on key concepts in water resource management (note: this is an unsolicited plug). According to Lautze, the insights generated by the flow of neologisms are “often encumbered by ambiguity, confusion and even fatigue”. Looking at the most commonly used terms, he and his colleagues find that:
1) Water scarcity is often conflated with water stress, and lumps together high quantity uses such as agriculture that have low economic and human security value with the more modest but critical requirements of drinking water. Also, when prices are set at anything below market clearing levels, there is always economic water scarcity; and even then there are likely to be unmet needs by the poor, socially or physically defined.
2) Water governance, which should be about process, including that of defining goals, “is frequently inflated to include issues that go well beyond governance,” adopting a priori goals that are “often derived from the tenets of IWRM” and including institutions as well as processes.
3) Water security, "has come to infiltrate prominent minent discourse in the international water and development community ... [but] understandings of the term are murky” and rarely quantified. Indeed, attempts at quan- tification highlight the difficulty of bringing disparate risk-based issues into one termino- logical rainbow.
4) Water productivity, "holds value when employed together with other indicators [but] does not add value when applied in isolation in a particular location”; in those cases, related extant concepts such as water efficiency or agricultural productivity can do a better job.
5) Virtual water and water footprints may help raise awareness but “do not contain sufficient information to determine smart public policies or to guide discussions regarding international trade” ; in fact, their use in those ways could inflict unnecessary harm on producers and households in areas where the opportunity cost of water is relatively low.
6) Green, blue, and otherwise coored water do not add scientific value to existing concepts and “can also prove dangerously misleading.”
So much for the big ones. In an appendix, Hanjra and Lautze touch base on 25 more trendy terms, including all the ones this essay began with aside from the last two, which they missed somehow. Some of these terms may help in bridging the science-policy interface, by framing problems in attention grabbing metaphors, but that can lead to a policy environment that is actually divorced all the more from a sound scientific understanding. In the end, to bring us back to the topic at hand, Lautze et al. suggest that we begin by setting out the critical challenges to the water sector, then adopt those concepts that can tackle those challenges. Those terms can then be elevated to “’paradigmatic’ status” .
But wait! These are concepts – or perhaps terms. How can we call them paradigms? Alas, that is another word on the loose that seems to have taken a number of concepts with it. Lautze associates “paradigm” with concept. That may work to give them a pseudo-scientific cachet in a media-dominated policy world, but we must acknowledge that it is not exactly the use of the term as Thomas Kuhn (1962) brought it into current usage, as a framework for organizing and interpreting scientific observations, not rebundling policy domains or aspirations. The hydrological cycle is a paradigm in this sense; IWRM or water security are not. Perhaps they are discourses or frames? Pandora has more than one box of terms, or, to stay in metaphor, floods come from many directions.
We have much to discuss in the halls of Edinburgh.
- Biswas, A. (2004). Integrated water resources mana- gement: a reassessment. Water International 29(2): 248-256.
- Grigg, N.S. (2008). Integrated water resources ma- nagement: balancing views and improving practice. Water International 33(3): 279-292.
- Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Far- rar, Straus and Giroux.
- Kuhn, T (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolution (2d Edition). University of Chicago Press.
-Lautze, J. ed. (2014). Key Concepts in Water Resource Management: A review and critical evaluation. Routledge (Earthscan).
- Rogers, P., M.R, Llamas, and L. Martínez-Cortina, ed. (2006). Water Crisis: Myth or Reality?. Taylor and Francis/Balkema.
Curious to see how much discussion this generates in Edinburgh. Is this a big deal? Or is this just 'hydroparadigmgate'?
Great place to be presenting a talk on hydrophilanthropy! Yes, I will be there.
Your comments are appreciated.
See you there!
Thanks to Slobodan P. Simonovic for alerting me to Nickum's article.
"If you’re going through hell, keep going." - Winston Churchill