What is your favourite aggregate state of water?
Water is a critical element for the planet in all of its forms. However, as a human and as a living organism, I cannot cherish more the existence of liquid water on Earth. Water is an inorganic molecule with no taste, no smell, no colour, yet, in its liquid form, it is the most important substance on this planet. While I am amazed by the beauty of snowflakes and by the fact that the Koch Snowflake is one of the earliest fractals to be described, by the vastness and richness of the glacial environments in the mountains, in the Arctic and Antarctic, and by the incredible sculptures of nature created in ice caves, there is no substitute for water in its liquid form. In our search for life on other celestial bodies, “Follow the water” has always been the motto, because water is the first chemical, we are looking for due to its unique physical and chemical properties. It is, in fact, true that water is not at all scarce in space, hidden in nooks and crannies of asteroids and comets, concentrated on the poles of Mars, in giant molecular clouds between stars and its biggest reservoir in space so far discovered was actually found orbiting a quasar over 12 billion light-years away. But the vast majority we found to date is in the form of ice or water vapour. Liquid water is extremely scarce as it requires certain specific conditions to exist in this form. Interestingly enough, some of the moons in our cosmic neighbourhood, those orbiting the gas giants of the outer Solar System, are thought to possess liquid water deep beneath their surface. Future missions to these worlds will give us more insight on what is hidden in the depths of Enceladus, Europa, Ganymede or Callisto. And we will learn a lot also on our planet Earth.
Could you tell us about your proudest professional moment?
Counting also my studies, I have been involved in the space sector for around 40 years now. Much has happened in space science, technology and exploration since I started attending the university and I was fortunate enough to be part of some of the most exciting endeavours. My involvement in missions that have helped to discover water on Mars, to land on and explore a comet, to study Saturn and its biggest moon or to sustain human life in space on the International Space Station is something I am very proud of. Given the list, choosing one over the other is not something I could justify. If I rather focus on my tenure at UNOOSA, I have to mention one of the flagship projects that UNOOSA is currently running under the Access to Space for All initiative: the KiboCUBE project, a dedicated partnership with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The winning project of the first round of KiboCUBE resulted in the launch of Kenya’s first-ever satellite, which was deployed by astronauts on the ISS. Seeing the photo from the ISS with the Kenyan flag and the UN flag together just moments before the deployment was indeed a touching moment. Suddenly, an idea became reality and the first ever Kenyan satellite and the first ever satellite launched under the auspices of the United Nations was on its way to provide valuable data for Kenya. I am very thrilled with our partnership in reaching this milestone, and I am extremely proud of the students at the University of Nairobi who worked tirelessly to make this happen. The whole process of Kenya’s successful satellite deployment was a new kind of experience for me to go through and I am really glad to have been part of this journey. This year we are expecting the deployment of two more satellites under KiboCUBE and we’ve just agreed with JAXA to extend the opportunity by two additional rounds – 6th and 7th. I’ve been lucky enough to have experienced a lot of very proud professional moments, and I’m working hard to continue to do so!
What do you need to innovate? What conditions enable you to make a difference with the work you do?
I think the biggest driver of innovation is curiosity. Everyone is born with a certain drive to explore the world around. It is not a surprise that the question we hear often from our children is “Why?”. From a very young age, we are driven by the desire to know more – to discover what secrets are hidden in the neighbouring city, in the forest around the town, in other countries and so on. It might, however, seem that this early curiosity somewhat dissipates. Hence, we need to nurture it so that we do not lose the next Newton, Marie Curie, Neil Armstrong or Valentina Tereshkova.
One of my aspirations in life was to have a profession that allows me to work and learn at the same time, to discover, and I am fortunate enough to have exactly such a career, learning something new every day even after decades in business. And we need to ensure that people around the world can share the same impulse. We need diversity and integrated efforts to foster innovation. Diversity exposes us to unique ideas that help us achieve our goals more efficiently. So, we need to encourage more and more minds to change the world for the better through their talent. At UNOOSA, we contribute substantially to this goal. Being a woman in this industry was at times difficult, especially in the early stage of my career. Despite, looking back I was able to overcome all those obstacles, looking at them more as challenges than potential showstoppers.
Today, it is my personal, but also professional, goal to encourage more women to pursue STEM education and careers, and to help them rise above those barriers. At the same time, we need to make sure that stakeholders – both state and non-state – adopt measures to prevent girls and women from being discriminated against and to help them on their path to their dream careers. These goals are at the heart of the Space for Women project, developed and managed under UNOOSA. Through the project, we are creating an enabling environment and work atmosphere, helping women and girls to overcome barriers and contributing to their empowerment as a pre-condition for achieving not only Goal 4 “Quality Education” and Goal 5 “Gender Equality” but ultimately to the whole 2030 Agenda.
We are also focusing on youth in general to make sure that their voices are heard on a global stage. To contribute to the UN Youth 2030 Strategy, UNOOSA last year launched the Space4Youth competition, encouraging youth to share ideas on how space can help achieve the SDGs in their community. This contributes to ensuring that those who will inherit this world are not only recipients of the decisions of older generations, but also an integral part of the solution.
We also need an open mind and the ability to adapt to technological changes that can optimise our efforts, together with a certain ability towards resilience and risk management, fully convinced that risk avoidance is opposite to innovation. These are some of the conditions I would say helped me make a difference in the work I do.
Describe how your professional (and/or personal) experience relates to space technologies and their application on natural resource management, e.g. water.
Space has been an integral part of my daily life for more than four decades now. As a young student I was fascinated by science and in general by discoveries. I was attracted by the ‘known unknown’ and after few years in the field, even more by the ‘unknown unknown’. Seeking a field that would satisfy my curiosity throughout my life, I eventually chose astrophysics as the educational start for my career path. In the early stage of my career, among other exciting tasks, I have worked extensively on programs for space exploration and engaging with experts and inventors on developing the technology needed to advance our understanding of the universe. Gradually, I also increasingly started to focus on the socioeconomic aspects of space technology.
For years, I have worked not only looking up, but also looking down at our planet searching for opportunities on how satellites can be used to improve life on Earth. Space science is incredibly important for Earth science, and in some cases, even data gathered from space exploration helps us understand more about ourselves and our planet. Venus is a great example of a planet that went from potentially habitable to a boiling kettle with runaway greenhouse effect. Similarly, Mars is thought to have been wet and fertile and potentially hosting life before losing much of its atmosphere. Some aspects of planetary climate cannot be researched solely on Earth. Studying Venus, Mars or Saturn’s moon Titan hence gives valuable insights.
Space exploration can teach us a lot about the potential past and future scenarios for Earth and comparative planetology helps us doing so. A great example is research on the ozone layer, which benefitted greatly from the work done on atmospheric chemistry on Venus as it helped scientists identify chemical processes that we had very little knowledge about in our own atmosphere. These new discoveries have prompted us to identify ozone holes and make the case for protecting this vital layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. The three different paths for Venus, Earth and Mars also tell us an important tale – habitability of a planet is not something we can take for granted. While changes that we observe on our cosmic neighbours took millions of years to materialize, the example of disappearing ozone layer and human-induced climate change show that things can go wrong very quickly. This is why managing natural resources in a sustainable manner is so critical, but also why space is so vital.
What do you think is poorly understood or unresolved within the area of sustainable water management? Why is this so? How do you believe space technologies add value?
Sustainable water management is a complex science where the variables, processes, actors and institutions are interconnected and interdependent. The good news is the recognition by the international community of the issue as a global problem and one of its priorities bringing together stakeholders to work towards a common goal. In 2015, the UN Member States gathered in New York and agreed on the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Goals (SDGs) with corresponding 169 targets and over 230 indicators. SDG 6 is devoted to “Clean Water and Sanitation” and focuses on a range of critical topics related to water including access to safe and affordable drinking water, sanitation and hand-washing facilities, improvements to efficiency and water quality globally, and integrated water management at all levels.
The bad news is that the complexity is increased by the different frameworks of regulation, theories of management and tools available. Countries have different levels of interest in management of natural resources based on their national interest. This causes a fragmented and less efficient approach to the management of water. In many countries, technology is not accessible for everyone, although it is available. For example, in remote parts of the world or in developing countries it is difficult for people to have access to the necessary tools for sustainable water management. In this regard, space assets can greatly contribute by helping to build that interconnectivity. Satellite technology can be used in many downstream applications.
For example, satellite remote sensing can be used to access the quality of water resources. It can be used to monitor oceans and marine life. The flood mapping feature can be utilized in the event of a disaster to issue early warning, identify flood prone locations, or evaluate the extent of damage. This is but a shortlist of great benefits that satellites offer in water-related issues but makes it clear that space technology plays an integral role in sustainably managing and preserving water resources.
Based on your experience, what is the potential of science diplomacy? And where do you see challenges in this field?
Science diplomacy is of critical importance in an age when our lives depend on technology, data, services and applications to an extend never seen before. While countries globally have different forms of government, different religions or different worldviews, science in one country is the same for everyone. Laws of physics, chemistry, math, or biology apply to everyone equally. In this sense, we can say that science transcends borders, and this is true for science diplomacy and certainly for the space sector. At the beginning of the space age, two superpowers competed in every possible way but soon enough, through diplomacy, cooperation in space prevailed. Today, we can celebrate one of the most impressive results of diplomacy and international cooperation– the International Space Station, a collaboration of 15 countries. I had the pleasure myself to lead the efforts of the European Space Agency in connection to the International Space Station and from the first-hand experience I can truly say that science diplomacy has a great potential.
We also cannot forget the joint effort of dozens of countries over the course of the space age in developing ‘rules of the road’ applicable to everyone who conducts activities in orbit. The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has been instrumental in this regard representing a forum for discussion and development of treaties, principles, voluntary guidelines and other frameworks relevant to space exploration and utilization. The work continues and debates over contemporary changes and challenges in the sector are taking place three times a year in an effort to identify and solve the most pressing issues from legal, policy, scientific and technical perspectives. Following the current discussions between space agencies, governments but also private sector, academia and non-governmental organizations, I am confident that we will see great things happening in the future, both in terms of exploration and policymaking. With technologies breaking new grounds, diplomacy plays an important role in ensuring that we use these scientific developments in a transparent and responsible manner.
Space ̶ similarly to high seas, airspace or the Antarctic ̶ is considered a global commons, a province of all humankind. Management of these global domains requires shared rules regarding their use as well as access to, as the only means to encourage their cooperative and peaceful utilization. In space, diplomatic efforts must take into consideration one important aspect that is unique to this environment. Actions of one stakeholder, even the launch of a single small satellite, have an influence on everyone else. In this regard, governance and diplomacy challenges are represented by the need for addressing the complexity of interests from private to public, which are often subject to changes that can be unpredictable and range from an individual to a local and ultimately to the global level. Diplomatic efforts must be calibrated for international cooperation to support on one side the development of technology, through transfer of skills, monetary support, capacity-building and regulatory incentives for robust research and development, and on the other side, responsible behaviour of all stakeholders operating in this environment. At UNOOSA we work closely on both these aspects. Through cooperation with many countries with advanced space capabilities we help developing countries to also benefit from space. Through awareness-raising and policy support we contribute to raising global adherence to, and awareness of, the existing international and legal instruments on outer space, which ultimately benefit the global space community.
What is the best context to address water issues and water governance to positively impact the way water is managed? Do you believe water governance and management issues are addressed appropriately on a global scale? Do you see action following words?
Water is a natural resource important for the survival of not only humans but virtually all other species on Earth, not to mention that water is the essential ingredient for the emergence of life itself. Having in place fragmented policies to govern and manage the issues related to water could prove to be extremely risky, especially as more and more people and organisms are becoming vulnerable to water shortages, many of which are the result of the changing climate.
The United Nations not only provides the optimal platform for dialogue about the governance of water as a common good, but is also an integral part of the process of defining the best measures and solutions for managing such issues. It allows for interaction between institutional actors such as states or inter-governmental organisations and non-governmental actors such as non-profit organisations and individuals. This interaction allows us to foster growth and development by distributing the resources and tools needed to enhance the management of such resources.
The UN fully realizes the need to coordinate actions in water management and water governance. In 2003, building on the past efforts, UN-Water was established to ensure that the UN delivers as one in response to water related challenges given the fact that more than 30 UN organizations carry out, in one way or another, water-related programmes. UN-Water predominantly focuses on three streams of work – informing policy processes, monitoring and reporting on key water trends and management issues, and inspiring action around the world.
The Integrated Monitoring Initiative for SDG 6 launched and managed under the UN roof, supports countries in monitoring water- and sanitation-related. In this regard, some of the measured and monitored indicators are reliant on Earth observation from space, which allows us to see the bigger picture through data that are global, uniform, sustained over years and regularly repeated.
UNOOSA has been actively contributing to the topic for quite some of time, organizing conferences and events to bring together relevant actors in finding common grounds for addressing water-related challenges. International cooperation is the pre-requisite for achieving SDG 6 and UNOOSA will continue fostering it in the future.
As someone who meets professionals, who research water and space technologies, who work with water management and space technologies and such, whose work relates to water governance and policy making, can you make any recommendations on how to foster knowledge exchanges in such a way that action and good governance can follow?
The best way we can ensure proliferation of knowledge is through open-source data and the sharing of ideas and know-how. The compilation of data, including space data, and unrestricted access to it, can help create awareness on the various nuances of water resource management. It can have a huge impact over the way we regulate and manage these resources. We must put our efforts towards collaboration instead of competition.
A fantastic example of such approach is the great collaboration UNOOSA established with the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water (PSIPW). The joint work on a common goal of promoting the use of space-based technology for increased access to water allows us to make a real difference. Space4Water portal is extremely important for creating awareness and providing seeds for innovative initiatives that help in good governance.
The Portal presents new and innovative ideas that policymakers might not be aware of. It also provides examples of workable solutions which may be immediately adopted. This can significantly push towards action-oriented governance. Promoting diversity in the STEM fields, pushing for the increasing inclusion of women and talent from all over the world, is also essential for the proliferation of knowledge. Overall, what we do is to strive for harnessing the power of space to tackle the common challenges facing humanity, and it is where we are so relevant for the future we want.