Who decides who gets water and how?

September, 2016
By Shafiqul Islam, Professor of Engineering and Water Diplomacy, Tufts University

The following article is part of the SFG publication “Big Questions of Our time: The World Speaks”. To access the full publication please click here.


The World Economic Forum recently rated water crises as the greatest risks facing the world. Millions of people lack access to water. Children die daily due to lack of clean water. Why do these problems persist even as science and technology give us better tools to measure, treat, and deliver water?

Because the solution space for these complex problems - involving interdependent variables, processes, actors, and institutions - can’t be pre-stated. Consequently, we can’t know what will or can happen with any reasonable certainty. To address these persistent water problems, we need to start by acknowledging the limits of our knowing to act and the contingent nature of our action. 

In this pursuit, an explicit recognition of disconnect between values, interests, and tools as well as problems, policy, and politics is needed. Interpretive complexity and related pluralism of understanding need to be addressed before scientific and technological solutions become relevant and actionable. This requires difficult trade-offs in exploring and sharing benefits and burdens through a carefully crafted negotiation process. A pragmatic approach to identify enabling conditions – as opposed to mechanistic casual explanations - that is rooted in contextual conditions and rests on the principles of equity and sustainability is a step in that direction.

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