You are currently a Senior Fellow and Cluster Coordinator: Nature, Climate, and Health at UNU – CRIS, can you elaborate on your role, and how it relates to water?

The world faces big problems like climate change, water shortages, and health issues. At UNU CRIS, our Nature, Climate, and Health Cluster studies how these problems are linked. We see that climate change makes things like water and food scarce, which hurts people's health. Our research shows how climate change affects water, food, and health security. To deal with the challenges related to water crises, we need new ways to tackle climate change and enhance community resilience to water-related challenges at regional, national and global levels. We also examine how climate change and water shortages affect people's physical and mental health or even pandemics. We believe in combining efforts to solve these issues and integrating environmental concerns into decision-making at all levels of governance. Our researchers study how to make this happen, especially through cooperation between regions to manage shared resources like water.  Our agenda is to be collaborative, and we think working together is vital for effective environmental management, and our cluster focuses on finding sustainable and fair solutions for everyone. You can learn more about our work on our website.

As for our recent projects, one focuses on using wetlands to improve water use efficiency in European agriculture. We used advanced mapping tools to develop solutions for this issue. You can find more details about it on our website at the Nature, Climate, and Health section and also take a look at some of the recent science-policy messaging related to achieving water and food security and Understanding Multifunctionality of Constructed Wetlands in Agricultural Settings in the European Region. This project employed a range of geospatial tools to design a framework and solution for boosting water use efficiency.

How do you benefit from using space technology and data in your work?

Space technology, particularly remote sensing and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), play a pivotal role in addressing the challenges of climate change, water insecurity, and health crises by providing critical data and advanced algorithms for analysis and decision-making. We utilize remote sensing data for monitoring environmental changes and their impacts on climate, water resources, and health, primarily for monitoring vegetation status and water resources and predicting disaster risks such as cyclones, floods, and droughts to support climate change adaptation.
We use GIS as a tool for managing, analyzing, and visualizing spatial data, which is vital for water resource management and planning, and for mapping water resources and changes, which is essential for water resource and (disaster) flood risk management. Integrated use of GIS and remote sensing helped us provide a comprehensive view of water resources, aiding in managing and planning these resources.
While high-resolution data can be expensive, and there may be limited access to needed technologies due to costs or skill constraints, we try to incorporate remote sensing and GIS as tools for comprehensively understanding and addressing the interlinked challenges of climate change, water insecurity, and health crises. The analytical capabilities support informed decision-making and effective management of natural resources, contributing to achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and enhancing regional and global cooperation for environmental governance.

Both water and space technology are critical drivers in achieving the agenda 2030. What in your view is the unharnessed potential of space technology and data to reach the SDGs?

Absolutely. Space technology and data hold immense potential in advancing the SDGs by providing invaluable information for decision-making and progress monitoring. For instance, Earth Observation (EO) satellites are pivotal in monitoring environmental changes, agricultural productivity, and urban development. This data is crucial for informed policymaking and sustainable resource management, directly impacting several SDGs. Global Navigation Satellite Systems, or GNSS, including GPS, remain key for disaster risk reduction, precision agriculture, and sustainable transport systems. Meanwhile, communication satellites are key in bridging the digital divide, offering remote areas access to the internet, tele-education, and telemedicine holding potential for supporting education, innovation, and health related. Space technology aids disaster preparedness and response through weather forecasting and satellite imagery, contributing to SDGs focused on sustainable cities and climate action. For climate monitoring, satellites track crucial indicators like greenhouse gas concentrations and sea-level rise, informing actions related to Climate Action. For agriculture, remote sensing satellites provide data on soil, crop development, and irrigation needs, which are vital for combating hunger and promoting sustainable agriculture.

While space technology and data offer significant potential to advance the SDGs, addressing challenges, building capacity, and ensuring equitable access are necessary for fully harnessing this potential. A coordinated global effort is essential in this regard.

As a systems scientist, do you believe it's a good idea to focus on specific goals of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) first? Would putting more effort into certain areas create good or bad effects? If yes, which situations should we study more closely? And how do water and space technologies fit into this picture?

Prioritizing the achievement of certain SDGs, such as those related to poverty alleviation, food security, water management, land management, and climate action, involves strategic allocation of natural resources and multistakeholder efforts. Concentrating efforts on specific areas can create positive feedback loops, amplifying the impact of interventions, but it's also essential to mitigate potential negative consequences. Space technologies, such as remote sensing and GIS, offer valuable tools for monitoring water resources, predicting water availability, and assessing environmental changes, facilitating evidence-based decision-making in water management.
For instance, focusing on Target 6.5, which aims to implement integrated water resources management, we can generate positive feedback loops by fostering efficient water use, reducing conflicts over water resources, and enhancing water security. However, other targets related to water, such as Target 6.6 to protect and restore water-related ecosystems, can seemingly benefit from the use of space technologies through monitoring and modeling exercises. Other scenarios worth examining in more depth using various geospatial tools include designing the below-listed

  • Decision Support Systems that integrate various parameters across multiple targets, such as combining water resource management (Target 6.5) with ecosystem restoration (Target 6.6) to maximize synergies and minimize trade-offs.
  • GIS interfaces allow for better collaboration between water managers and staff from sectors such as agriculture, energy, and urban development to address interconnected challenges and optimize resource allocation.

Assessment of scenarios that prioritize the adoption of innovative water solutions to align with the agenda outlined in Target 6. a, to enhance water efficiency, improve sanitation, and promote sustainable water use practices with support to aggregate, analyze, and visualize data and information and creating policy support systems that are sensitive to time and space continuum.

By strategically aligning efforts, leveraging innovative technologies, and fostering cross-sectoral collaboration, we can accelerate progress towards achieving many SDG goals and targets while promoting sustainable development and resilience in the face of global challenges. In the above note, I have highlighted details on SDG 6 in particular.

Can you briefly explain the approach of a systems scientist to understanding a problem to a layman? What is the difference when applying systems thinking methodologies?

Explaining the approach of a systems scientist to understanding a problem involves breaking down complex concepts into more understandable terms. Here's a simplified explanation: Imagine you're trying to understand a puzzle. You don't just look at one piece; you look at how all the pieces fit together to form the bigger picture. Similarly, a systems scientist approaches problem by considering the interconnectedness of various factors. They don't just focus on one aspect but rather assess and explore how different elements influence each other within a larger system, and how parts make a whole. Now, when applying systems thinking methodologies, the approach becomes even more holistic. Instead of isolating individual pieces of the puzzle, systems thinking looks at the puzzle as a whole. It considers not only how the pieces fit together but also how they interact with each other and with the environment around them. Systems thinking helps uncover hidden patterns, feedback loops, and unintended consequences, providing a deeper understanding of complex problems and guiding more effective solutions. While disciplinary approach to sustainability approaches may view problems in isolation, systems thinking emphasizes the interconnectedness and interdependence of all elements, leading to a more comprehensive understanding of the problem at hand.

Think that you're trying to figure out why your garden isn't growing as well as you'd like. Instead of just looking at one plant or one aspect of your garden, a systems scientist would look at the whole setup. They consider things like the soil quality, sunlight, water levels, and even the bugs and critters hanging around. Now, when they use systems thinking, it is like stepping back and seeing the entire garden as one big interconnected system. They notice how changes in one part, like adding fertilizer or moving a plant, can affect everything else. It is like seeing how all the pieces of a puzzle fit together to make the big picture. So, instead of just focusing on one problem at a time, systems thinking helps them understand how everything works together. It's like zooming out to see the bigger picture, which can lead to smarter decisions and better solutions for complex (wicked) problems.

You chaired the Partnership for Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction (PEDRR) at the United Nations Environment Programme  (UNEP) and co-led the ‘Water and Migration Working Group’ at The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). What are the main reasons for which people migrate due to water issues, and what might happen in the future? How can we stop, get ready for, and lessen the impacts of water-related problems on migration, and how can space technologies help us do this?

Water-related migration is influenced by various factors, including both drivers and risks. Climate change, over-extraction, and pollution are shrinking our freshwater supplies, forcing people to migrate due to water stress. Sustainable management, pollution control, and innovative technologies like satellite monitoring are key to preventing and mitigating this crisis. Investing in early warning systems and infrastructure can prepare communities for future challenges, ensuring a secure water future for all.Severe droughts, floods, and storms can disrupt livelihoods, damage infrastructure, and displace communities, prompting migration, which is another aspect where geospatial tools can be helpful.

Associating with PEDRR and the FAO working group we also investigate how disaster settings and limited economic opportunities in water-stressed regions may drive people to migrate in search of better livelihoods elsewhere. Competition over scarce water resources can exacerbate tensions and conflicts within communities, leading to voluntary or forced displacement. Forced migration due to water-related hazards can result in the loss of homes, livelihoods, and social networks, cascading and compounding risks are noted for example, displaced populations may face heightened vulnerabilities, including food insecurity, inadequate shelter, and health risks.

Furthermore, unorganized migration can strain host communities and exacerbate social tensions, leading to conflicts over shared resources and services.
Noting the relevance of implementing sustainable water management practices to improve water availability and resilience in vulnerable regions, geospatial tools can offer low-cost and time-effective solution to understand options and alternatives. For instance, by investing in early warning systems (EWS) for water-related hazards to enable timely evacuation and disaster preparedness and manage migration flow, EWS systems can benefit from space technologies as satellite-based remote sensing technologies can provide real-time data on water availability, drought monitoring, and flood forecasting, enabling proactive risk management and response.

The linked publication is based on a series of discussions in capturing the complexity of migration pathways triggered by water and climate crises.

Coastal erosion and inundation from rising sea levels due to climate change can displace coastal populations. Adaptation measures and climate-resilient infrastructure are crucial to mitigate extreme weather impacts. Promoting livelihood diversification and income-generating activities can reduce dependency on water-dependent sectors. Social cohesion and community-based approaches enhance resilience and support vulnerable populations. In the Congo region, we used remote sensing data and ground information to plan future water security and climate adaptation interventions.

GIS tools can facilitate spatial analysis and mapping of water-related risks, helping identify vulnerable areas and prioritize interventions. This paper on Multiple water use as an approach for increased basin productivity and improved adaptation in Bangladesh is a good example:

Satellite communication technologies can improve connectivity and communication in remote and disaster-prone areas, enhancing early warning systems and emergency response efforts. Moreover, space technologies enable the monitoring of environmental changes, including sea level rise and land degradation, supporting evidence-based decision-making and policy formulation. In both these platforms we support building capacity in the use of space technologies and geospatial data analysis, showing how we can empower communities to better understand and address water climate-related risks.

In the coming years, water-related migration challenges will persist due to climate change and socio-economic factors. To tackle this, it is needed to integrate approaches combining water management, disaster risk reduction, and sustainable development. Space technologies can help monitor and respond to water issues, reducing migration risks. As someone involved with UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration committees, what are the main risks to aquatic ecosystems today? What action should the global community take?

The main risks to water systems include pollution from chemicals, plastics, and nutrients, as well as disruptions from rising temperatures and human activities like fishing and aquaculture. Wetland drainage also harms critical habitats. Restoring ecosystems is essential, and the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration aims to address these issues through international agreements, research, capacity building, and community involvement.
Additionally, aquaculture significantly impacts water ecosystems, such as nutrient release and habitat alteration. Space technology can help monitor and mitigate these risks by providing data on aquaculture infrastructure and water quality parameters. Satellite technology also aids in detecting disease outbreaks and supporting sustainable development planning. This technology enhances the efficiency and sustainability of aquaculture while protecting aquatic environments. More information on this topic is in my recent article and related documents  ( links shared below).

Policy-focused research:

You worked with Indigenous communities on collaborative mapping e.g. in the context of the Ohneganos project, can you share a key moment or insight from this work?

The Ohneganos Project: Assessing Six Nations Women's Health and Water Insecurity is led by women of Six Nations. It examines water insecurity and its impact on ecological and human health. The lack of clean potable water affects many homes in Six Nations, one of Canada's most populated reserves. The project adopted a co-creation research approach, where Indigenous women play a leading role in designing, implementing, and disseminating the research. Historical context, Haudenosaunee women's responsibilities, governance structures, and Haudenosaunee laws are considered to situate the research within the community. The analysis reveals that gender plays a significant role in Indigenous communities, with females rating the cultural importance of water. The study highlights the intersectionality of gender, water, colonial violence, and Haudenosaunee law in addressing water security and climate crises. The project underscores the importance of community-led research in addressing water insecurity and advocating for the protection of source water. It emphasizes the need for collaboration between Indigenous and Western science and prioritizes the sovereignty of Indigenous communities over water bodies.

The Ohneganos project demonstrates the efficacy of community-led research in addressing complex issues such as water insecurity. By weaving together health, culture, spirituality, and access to water, the project highlights the importance of protecting water sources for the well-being of both ecosystems and humans, and the best part is that we use GIS, remote sensing, and other advanced tools to fulfill the objectives. Meet the team here and find relevant presentations here.
I have highlighted the work in which I was deeply involved:

What do you need to innovate, what working conditions make you excel?

With increasing demand and limited freshwater resources, innovation is crucial to finding sustainable solutions for water management. Growing populations put pressure on water resources, necessitating innovative approaches to meet the demand for clean water and the SDG 6 agenda. Furthermore, climate change exacerbates water scarcity and alters precipitation patterns, requiring innovative adaptation strategies and technologies. Innovation can lead to more efficient and eco-friendly water treatment and distribution systems, minimizing impacts, for instance, aging water infrastructure requires innovative solutions for maintenance, repair, and modernization to ensure reliability and efficiency, and safe and clean drinking water requires innovative technologies for water purification and quality monitoring. Innovation in the water sector can stimulate economic growth by creating new jobs, attracting investments, and fostering entrepreneurship. At UNU we reckon that access to clean water is essential for public health, and innovation plays a vital role in providing water security.

In summary, innovation in the water sector is essential for addressing various challenges such as water scarcity, population growth, climate change, environmental concerns, aging infrastructure, water quality, economic development, and global health. As these topics are part of my work mandate, it is key to keep track of innovation guiding the sector and sub-sectors.

In terms of enabling conditions, UNU institutes provide a diverse and inclusive workplace, fostering various perspectives, and contributing to innovative thinking. At the programme level, setting clearly defined goals and objectives provides a roadmap for innovation, helping me to stay focused. Having a degree of autonomy in my work allows for independent thinking and exploring novel ideas. Recognition and appreciation for contributions help boost morale and motivation, creating an environment where team members feel valued - I practice this point religiously. Maintaining a balanced workload prevents burnout and allows me to dedicate quality time and effort toward innovative ideas; however, it’s not always possible to have that balance all the time; one could try as much. Remember that the ideal working conditions for innovation may vary among individuals and institutions. Tailoring these factors to a team's specific needs and culture can enhance the likelihood of successful innovation. Also, a commitment to continuous learning encourages me to stay updated on trends and acquire new skills to deliver the mandate. A workplace that encourages open communication and idea-sharing provides a platform for diverse perspectives and fuels innovation; at our institution, UNU CRIS, we organize regular seminars and discussion sessions to facilitate exchange and collaboration.

What is your favorite aggregate state of water?

Water is miraculous in liquid form as it embodies adaptability and fluidity, taking the shape of its holder while maintaining a cohesive, interconnected structure. This form symbolizes vitality, adaptability, and the essence of life itself, making it my favorite aggregate state. The fluidity allows it to nurture life, facilitating crucial biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services. From quenching thirst to sustaining flora, fauna, and all kinds of life, liquid water is the elixir of existence, an essential component for diverse climates on Earth. It's the medium in which both freshwater and marine life thrive, and it plays a pivotal role in shaping our earth's landscapes through erosion and deposition. Most importantly, liquid water fosters a sense of tranquility. Whether it's the soothing sound of raindrops, the serenity of a flowing river, or the calming effect of a serene lake, liquid water profoundly impacts our well-being.