Professor David Grey speaks on transboundary water management at IIASA Conference

David Grey was among the many distinguished speakers participating in the IIASA Conference which was held in Vienna and Laxenburg, Austria on 24-26 October 2012. He spoke about the challenges of transboundary water management, the North-South divide, and the role of science and information in supporting water management.

The IIASA conference, ‘Worlds within reach: from science to policy’ examined the many sustainability and development challenges faced in a world undergoing major transformations such as globalisation, shifts in economic and political power, escalating environmental challenges, and deep social conflict. Leading scientists and experts gathered to discuss options for addressing these global challenges, making the important link from science to policy.

David Grey took part in a session on ‘Respecting nature’s boundaries for a fair and secure world – water and food’. He highlighted a major North-South divide in terms of both physical characteristics of water resources, and in capacity to manage these resources.

There is a significant inverse correlation between hydro-complexity and economic growth, said Grey. This means that while African rainfall is on average similar to that of Europe, Africa faces far greater water problems due to the variability and unpredictability of rainfall and runoff.

There is also a massive information shortfall in many developing countries. Africa has only 10 per cent of the monitoring stations found in Europe. “You cannot manage what you do not measure, but the cost of measurement, the complexity of measurement, and the skills required are very considerable”, he said.

Grey questioned whether water is really a local problem as commonly argued, when there are 260 international river basins accounting for nearly half the world’s land surface. The principle of national sovereignty brings particular challenges to transboundary water management and leads to secrecy of data. However, he argued that cooperation on international rivers is a positive-sum game and benefits can be reaped by all parties. Science has an important role to play in demonstrating these benefits.

“We are heading in a direction of an essential paradigm shift in water management where are policy boundaries must progress from the local level to the planetary level”, said Grey. The good news is that the rapid growth of water knowledge as a global public good, including communication systems, computing innovations, citizen engagement, and social networks, offer unprecedented opportunities for managing water across the planet.

All videos of speakers are available on the conference website.

Professor David Grey is Visiting Professor of Water Policy at the School of Geography and the Environment, and Policy Lead for Oxford University’s Water Security Network.