Doing science that matters to address India’s water crisis

India is one of the most water stressed countries in the world. However, despite appreciable increase in funding for water research, high quality science that is usable by stakeholders remains elusive. In a recent article published in Resonance journal, ATREE’s Dr. Veena Srinivasan argues that this can be attributed to the absence of research on questions that actually matter to stakeholders, unwillingness to transcend disciplinary boundaries, and the demise of field-work research culture in favour of computer simulation. Conventional wisdom is that these trends are driven by what is publishable. However, there is a growing interest in the international community in interdisciplinary, problem driven, empirical research.

In her article, Dr. Srinivasan calls for three critical changes to how water resources research is practiced so that it contributes to an understanding of India's water crisis.

Pursuing research questions that matter to stakeholders

Much of the scientific work on water resources does not feed into the public discourse. This is not merely because scientists are not disseminating their research. Rather the science itself is often abstruse and the questions poorly framed. For the science to be usable and accepted by stakeholders, the research itself needs to be designed and validated by consulting stakeholders at all stages of research. This idea is relatively new and is gaining prominence in international literature.

Being willing to cross interdisciplinary boundaries
If the research is to be sensitive to stakeholders it must become interdisciplinary. A water resource researcher may be trained to write an equation for loss from an irrigation canal, or to write a programme to ‘optimally’ manage a reservoir; but often natural scientists are completely blind to the social implications of a particular dam or canal design such as – “who are the winners and losers if one design is chosen over the other?” “Are the implicit assumptions about human behaviour valid?” “Who gets to decide what goes into the optimisation objective and constraint equations?” “Should aquatic species or landless labourers be included in the model?” and so on.

Doing this would require a paradigm shift in the way water resources research is conducted. It requires some understanding of the fields of economics, ecology, sociology, political science, etc. or at least a willingness to collaborate with researchers from those disciplines on an equal footing.

Doing field work to validate assumptions and data
Often the data used in models are inaccurate. For instance, measured streamflow values may be simply wrong (e.g., due to unit conversion errors or faulty sensors), or at least not what the modeller thinks they are (e.g., in many urban streams, ‘streamflow’ is just sewage).

Groundwater levels in hard-rock peninsular India are another classic example of this blinkered vision. ATREE’s field studies have consistently found government monitoring well data to be much shallower than both observation data (from borewell scans and water level recorders) and farmer reports. Groundwater models are built using this flawed data and the models are used to base infrastructure decisions and insurance prices. If the whole castle is built on a weak base, what’s the point?

Progress can only be made if the scientific community recognizes all types of data as being equally valid (within reason). Citizen science or farmer surveys can and should be used to validate conventional monitoring well data.