Freshwater: Towards a Better Understanding of a Wicked Problem

Tom Sanya

Water begets intricate and profound linkages between multiple systems. Quantitative limits to freshwater availability for human needs, variabilities in the water cycle and environmental water requirements interact with water source pollution. The arising tensions are a great challenge of immense contemporary significance that can best be described as a wicked problem – a problem with multiple dimensions that presents unexpected consequences when engaged. Water challenges make vivid the compromises that must be made between the environment and development. These compromises surface in the conflict between ecocentric and technocentric discourse. Globally, there is evidence of numerous disciplinary and interdisciplinary water-related studies both in the past and ongoing. But there is no meta-mapping of various dimensions of such research to give a clear overview of what has been and what needs to be done. Consequences of this oversight may include unnecessary duplication of research, difficulty in articulating knowledge gaps and inability to see beyond disciplinary boundaries. The author suggests an outline of how these difficulties can be engaged. This is done through a wide-ranging literature review to identify a range of issues of focus, which issues are then themed into imperatives for water research. These imperatives are subsequently systematised using four normative descriptors:  problem, drivers and mitigation measures. In combination, these descriptors articulate a spectrum of the key issues around water research. The key issues are mapped onto various academic disciplines and societal partners to outline a schema for positioning of water research. The proposed mapping can facilitate interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary (IDTD) research by allowing researchers to benefit from relevant existing bodies of knowledge while also making explicit knowledge gaps and opportunities for collaboration. By locating academic fields within different worldviews, the outlined schema reveals common ground beyond disciplinary confines around which IDTD research can be instigated.


freshwater; water scarcity; water pollution; worldviews; interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary (IDTD) research


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