Water problems are complex not only because they involve various stakeholders (e.g. farmers, industrial users, urban developers, environmental activists) competing for a limited and common resource, but also because they cross multiple boundaries (e.g. physical, disciplinary, jurisdictional). As a result, there is rarely an acceptable solution for water problems with multiple objectives and competing needs.
Water resources are increasingly over-used, water quality is sub-optimal, and ecological integrity is excessively strained. Many water-related problems are framed from a contested terrain in which various actors (individuals, communities, businesses, NGOs, states and countries) compete to protect their own and often conflicting interests. Most water problems are typically local in nature; however, water policies are formulated for and impacted by a range of local, regional, national, and international scales. Although significant local knowledge exists for a variety of water issues, it is neither readily accessible nor easily transferable to other regions.
We argue that the origin of many water problems may be understood as a dynamic consequence of competition, interconnections, and feedback among Natural and Societal Domain variables within the Political Domain (NSPDs) as shown in Fig. 1. Within the natural domain, we recognize that triple constraints on water — quantity (Q), quality (P), and ecosystem (E) — and their interdependencies and feedback may lead to constraints and conflicts. Such inherent and multifaceted constraints of the natural water system cannot be easily separated from societal domain variables. Within the societal domain, interdependencies and feedback among social values and norms (V), economy (C), and governance (G) interact in a variety of ways to create intractable contextual differences.
The observation that natural and societal domains are linked is not novel. Our argument here, however, is that business as usual with strong disciplinary boundaries between these two domains will not produce answers to wicked water problems arising from the coupled NSPDs. Currently, a commonly accepted vocabulary and framework that can translate information between natural and societal domains to derive synthesized water knowledge does not exist. A key goal of Water 2100 is to create a framework and a network of students, faculty, external partners and stakeholders to facilitate the production of actionable knowledge across scales and locations.
This framework will synthesize explicit (scientific) and tacit (contextual) water knowledge that is reliable, relevant and readily actionable. Within this context, we focus on two particular challenges: (a) mechanisms to integrate knowledge from the science and policy domains to formulate and frame the questions; and (b) methods to create actionable knowledge by involving relevant users and knowledge producers and developing negotiated solutions for water problems with competing needs.