Making water and life simple to understand

Dr. Danka Thalmeinerova, former Senior Knowledge Management Officer at Global Water Partnership, reviews a recently-published book about… what else? Water!


As a former senior knowledge management officer in a top water organization, I believed that one couldn’t say anything really new about water. World leaders chant that without water there is no life and without good management of water resources further development of humanity is impossible.

And yet the World Economic Forum has continuously rated “water crises” as one of the top global risk since 2012. So, where are we making mistakes in addressing water problems?

Let’s start from the beginning: education. Water is easy to teach at schools – children water flowers which then grow and green. As children grow older, they learn about the simple H2O formula, biology brings examples about how living organisms need water, and geography is full of studying springs, rivers, lakes, and oceans.

But water education after that is more difficult. It takes a long time before an engineer is competent to design a waste water treatment plant or a multi-functional water reservoir. It requires many specialists to understand and apply hydrological laws to movement, distribution, and the quality of water. Things get complicated as water is not only a physical medium, but has a social and economic dimension. Thus, good management of water resources relies on specialists in the behavioral sciences such as economics, public health, demography, and political science. Yet, we must start somewhere…

One way is to read Practical Hydraulics and Water Resources Engineering by Melvyn Kay (full disclosure: we are former colleagues). The book was published in its third edition by CRC Press in 2017. Although it is primarily for engineers, it brings real life examples. We all know that a cork floats and a piece of steel sinks. What is behind that? When a domestic water tap is turned off quickly, why is there sometimes a loud banging noise in the pipe? Where is the best site for abstracting water from a river for irrigation?

As the author points out … “developing a qualitative understanding of hydraulics and solving problems mathematically are two different skills.” From Archimedes’ principle of choosing the right kind of pump to a stone-skipping experiment to the design of dams – this can all be understood without deep mathematical equations that frustrate “non-engineers.” The book also has extra chapters about water resources engineering and water resources planning and management.

At the end of the book, the chapter “Water Myths” makes us think about a naïve perception that an increase in water use efficiency saves water. Many global organizations and national regulators push for measures to invest in “saving water appliances” when irrigating the fields. In practice, each drop of water saved is used to expand agriculture production rather than to leave the water to the ecosystem. Also, an increase in water use efficiency tends to be accompanied by a decrease in the volume of water available to downstream users and the environment. Thus, water basin managers should not be interested in individual farms but focus as a whole on farmer groups along a river or basin.

By the way, we know that the vortex goes in a clockwise direction in the northern hemisphere and anticlockwise in the southern hemisphere. What about demonstrating this experiment on the equator in Kenya? This book will encourage you to experience some of those “Eureka!” moments to find how the science of hydraulics works.

About globalwaterpartnership

The Global Water Partnership's vision is for a water secure world. Our mission is to advance governance and management of water resources for sustainable and equitable development.
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1 Response to Making water and life simple to understand

  1. Ed Bourque says:


    I agree wholeheartedly with the challenge of communicating water issues.

    What few seem to understand, or at least integrate into the discussion, is that water in nature (floating around in a river, lake, etc) is qualitatively and conceptually different from water that comes from a tap. The latter is pumped, cleaned, piped, and delivered, and the former simply exists in whatever state (and quality) that it does.

    The conceptual distinctions between drinking water access and availability of bulk water for irrigation, industry, etc are also critical.

    While there are certainly regional scarcities -i.e., lack of uniformity of availability of natural water everywhere (deserts, dry land, etc), the discourse of GLOBAL WATER CRISIS and GLOBAL WATER SHORTAGE is Malthusian and overblown. [As a side note, if water were perfectly distributed across the globe, we would all be under water and the water would be salty!]

    Much of our global water woes could be reduced by better water management (trading and more efficient/highest value, etc) across sectors- agricultural, industrial, municipal, but the barriers to this are enormous. Having said this, the price of bulk water is low and there will not be any WATER WARS, as incentives across basins are largely towards cooperation. A post by a large group of people at my alma mater, King’s College London, discusses this.

    Regarding what drives lack of access for households, I argue that household economic wherewithal/affordability and accountability of governments or the private sector to provide (through collected taxes and/or water fees).

    Lastly, to your point of ‘water for nature’, that is something that the public and the public sector needs to speak for. Nature needs to have a voice in IWRM, but people have to speak up for it.


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