At the end of the Water in the Anthropocene conference in May the participants issued the Bonn Declaration on Global Water Security, which sets out in stark terms the likely future for global fresh water. It predicts that within a couple of generations “the majority of the 9 billion people on Earth will be living under the handicap of severe pressure on fresh water,” and warns that “this handicap will be self-inflicted and is, we believe, entirely avoidable”.
That suggests that the assembled researchers do indeed know how to avoid the looming problems of water security, and listening to their presentations it was hard to avoid the feeling that they had all the answers. Unfortunately, nobody in power seems to be asking water scientists the right questions.
One way to try and help people listen (and act) might be to make more of the scientists’ own techniques. Most of the conclusions presented at the meeting depended in one way or another on models. Lots of things make models more tractable than real life. For one, they are simpler, extracting the things that matter most. For another, they don’t actually have an impact on real life. But while scientists often defend “their” models vigorously, pointing to validation and ground-truthing and reliability and all that, what fascinates me about models is that they are, essentially, toys. Indeed, how often have you heard a researcher talk about playing with the data?
Now the nice thing about toys is that they allow you to learn important lessons at no risk. A train set allowed me to find out what happens when you go too fast round a curve, without actually needing to derail a train, or myself. So what would happen if the scientists deliberately made their models friendlier and easier to tinker with, and then handed them over to the decision makers to play with? Under adult supervision, of course.
Turning up for a tennis match with golf clubs
For example, it is all very well for researchers to conclude — on the basis of their models — that a country’s master plan for development will, if implemented, fail to satisfy its energy needs and its food needs alike. But unless people are listening and act on what they hear, the research will have no impact. If the same model could be wrapped in an attractive package that delivered realistic-seeming scenarios, might it not help decision-makers to appreciate the different consequences of their decisions? The success of games such as Age of Empires, which at its heart is no more than a set of interacting equations, suggests that there are definite opportunities. And Bill Phillips’ dripping hydraulic model of a Keynesian macroeconomy further suggests that simple controls can still help people to understand complex models. Of course, people choose to play Age of Empires, or are forced to understand Keynesian economics. Would decision-makers want to play with water toys?
Some conference speakers with experience of the games politicians play were dubious. Stuart Bunn, of the Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University, claimed most scientists are ill prepared for meetings with politicians. “It’s like turning up for a tennis match with golf clubs,” he said.
But there are hopeful signs. Eve Leroy, of EDYTEM, a research group specializing in mountain environments at the University of the Savoie, presented a model of how water cycles might change in the Alps. That model is being adapted to serve two different audiences: schoolchildren and politicians. Leroy is optimistic that it may help both groups to get a clearer view of the big picture and how different elements are interconnected and interdependent. Other model-makers at the conference also thought it might be a good idea to give policy-makers something to play with.
Giving simple, clear information is hard
Of course, the politicians would need to trust the models without fully understanding their inner workings. And then there’s the question of which models, on the subject of which Vladimir Smakhtin, Co-Leader of the WLE Strategic Research Program on River Basins, asked the meeting, not entirely rhetorically, “how much is enough?” Smakhtin’s point is that many transboundary basins are modelled “over and over again, with no sharing”. He argued that greater collaboration among countries, possibly in the context of a basin authority, could improve not only a model’s performance, but also its influence with different national authorities.
But that influence will depend in the end on whether water scientists can gain a hearing from politicians and decision makers. Claudia Pahl-Wostl, of the University of Osnabrück and Co-Chair of the Global Water Systems Project, which organized the conference, put it forcefully: “giving simple, clear information is hard”.
Hard, maybe, but water scientists will have to do so better if they want to help humanity to avoid the self-inflicted handicap that they fear. Models as toys might just make it easier.