World Water Week: What’s needed for science to support policy?

Written by Eddy Moors, on 14 September 2022

Science should play a key role in underpinning sound policies that protect the planet and promote prosperity. But often, scientists and policymakers don’t communicate well with each other. How can scientists present their findings so that they can be used to inform policy? This is the topic IHE Delft Rector Eddy Moors tackled in a keynote address at a seminar at World Water Week. Below is an edited version of his remarks.   

“As a water professional, I want to deliver scientific information in a format that will help policymakers reach sound water decisions. But what is it that policymakers need to make commitments and action plans? We need to be shorter and sharper in our communications, while staying scientifically sound.

If you look at science, and you look at what we are publishing at the moment, there are tonnes of pages. To transfer these into something that is useful for policymakers, reviews are often used. But these are often still quite lengthy and not that easy to read. We need something else.

We need to be shorter and sharper in our communications, while staying scientifically sound.
Eddy Moors
Rector of IHE Delft

Climate change

The climate change discourse offers ideas.

  • First, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change offers an example on how a vast and complex scientific work can be distilled into succinct policy advise. The main findings of its Working Group III report of almost 3,000 pages are available in a six-page document that lists headline statements for policymakers. That’s where we need to be: short, but well-supported by scientific evidence.
  • Second, the climate change debate shows that though difficult, action is possible when everyone is aware that there’s a crisis. It took the world far too long to listen to climate scientists’ warnings and even longer to take action: we can’t let the water issue take that long. The road to action on water must be much shorter than the one on climate change. I know this is not easy – particularly considering how complex water governance is.

How do we do this?

How do we do this? I have no simple answer, but I think fostering public interest and political will is a good start. And this must be done outside our sector. We need all sectors on board. The UN2023 Water Conference is a chance to call attention to the water crisis, but we must be sure to be concrete and explain clearly what kind of actions are needed.

We can look to past examples of science supporting policy that brought positive change.

Remember the ozone layer crisis? That led to regulations forcing actions that helped to the extent that young people today often are blissfully unaware of the apocalypse we all were expecting back in the 1980s. A wide range of sectors had to change their practices to avert the crisis and this type of concrete approach is what we need for water, too.

Another example is the Rhine River. When I was studying in the 70s, I was rowing on the Rhine, and I was told to avoid falling into the water, and if I did, I was to keep my mouth firmly shut: the water should not be ingested. I left for many years, and then I came back, and now you can swim in it.

Agreement is possible

The ozone layer’s and the Rhine River’s recovery show that we are able to come to an agreement to solve problems. In the case of the ozone layer, several businesses saw an opportunity in meeting the demand for goods that did not cause harm – meaning that sectors beyond the environmental got involved. This underlines another key message: We in the water world need to reach out to other sectors: water is part of all sectors, and all are needed to solve the water crisis.  

My final point: as we search for ways to help policymakers base their work on scientific evidence, we must also ensure that there is room for experiments in the water sector. We’re in a crisis and we need bold solutions: if we follow the same path as always, the crisis will worsen. A willingness to experiment is required. How can policymakers create a safe space for experiments to be carried out? This is something I hope water professionals, researchers and policymakers will discuss.”

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