Cooperation and connectedness: water in a time of climate change

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Academic and long-time IWA supporter Gustaf Olsson has explored water’s connections for many decades. His latest book underlines the need for a systems-based view if global challenges, especially climate change, are to be addressed.


In my professional life, I have worked in parallel with control and automation in urban water systems, in electrical power systems, and in the process industry. However, the research took place in silos, to some extent because of the financing structures that encourage specialisation rather than multidisciplinary cooperation. I realised that water professionals easily understood the importance of energy for all kinds of water operations. Energy people, however, often took water availability for granted and considered water scarcity a non-issue. Today, water is an essential topic for all types of engineers, as well as social scientists and behavioural science professionals. Global warming, energy and food production, economy, lifestyle, and health have a direct relationship with water.

Retiring from my responsibilities at Lund University in Sweden, I could study interactions between water and energy without worrying about research grants. I documented my findings in two books, Water and energy, and Clean water using solar and wind. I wanted to understand how water relates to climate, energy, food, economy, and lifestyle, and this was the key driving force. I also hope to stimulate young people and show that complex problems cannot be solved by looking at one component at a time. In our world of specialisation, solutions require cooperation, mutual respect, and understanding of what to expect from other specialists.

Unless we understand how global challenges are connected, we cannot start solving the complex problems we face. We – all of us in the global village – depend on each other. Water scarcity, droughts and floods have apparent couplings to global warming, climate change, food crises, energy production, air pollution, and absurd economic inequalities between nations and individuals. It is more urgent than ever to recognise how ruthless exploration affects our lives. A remarkable report in The Guardian on 11 May 2022 analyses the catastrophic plannings of the oil industry. The 12 largest oil companies are on track to spend more than $100 million a day until 2030 exploring new fields of oil and gas. This is nothing less than a catastrophe. We must be aware of this cynical planning. The International Energy Agency is regarded as a cautious and conservative body, but reported in May 2021 that there could be no new oil, gas fields or coal mines if the world was to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, has been outspoken on companies and governments whose climate actions do not match their words: “Simply put, they are lying, and the results will be catastrophic. Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”

Deniers do not see the connections or do not wish to understand. Rain fell for the first time on record at the highest point on the Greenland Ice Sheet in August 2021. Looking at this event in isolation from fires in Siberia, floods in Germany, glacial melt, the collapse of huge icebergs, longer hurricane seasons, methane release in the tundra, droughts, fires, overwhelming cold snaps, and coral bleaching, then unusual rain patterns would be considered nothing but odd weather. As long as these events are considered separate from one another, they can all be explained away. Taken as a whole, however, they can only be attributed to a fundamental change on our planet.

Our situation today is not an accident – it is the consequence of how we think and act. We have failed for decades to listen to scientific evidence of climate change, its causes, and its impact on water resources. It is crucial to see the connections and listen to people who are affected by the changes. Caring for our fellow citizens and caring for our environment are the same thing. We cannot deal with environment, technology, people and their priorities and ambitions as independent issues. All of them are interconnected.

My latest book, Water interactions: a systemic view, applies systems thinking to explain interconnections. Systems thinking is the opposite of analytical thinking. Analysis means taking something apart to understand it; systems thinking means putting the parts into the context of a larger whole. The same underlying idea of ‘systems’ can denote technical, social, economic, and living systems. Humans need food, air and water to sustain our bodies. Trees need carbon dioxide and sunlight to thrive. Everything needs something else, often a complex array of other things, to survive. The systems thinking perspective defines a fundamental principle of life. We need to change our way of seeing the world as consisting of a huge number of components, to viewing it as a dynamic, interconnected array of relationships and feedback loops. Sometimes we need a component view and other times we need a systems perspective, like looking at objects from the ground or from a helicopter.

It is not sufficient, listening to science, to understand dangers and connections. We must look for and recognise threats that are not described by natural sciences: greed, apathy, and selfishness. Science cannot provide a moral compass for our actions. This must be achieved by cultural and spiritual transformations. We should become aware of how economic systems and lifestyles are intimately connected to climate, water, energy, and food.

My generation has witnessed an enormous development. The wealthiest part of the world has used most of the global resources and caused most of the carbon dioxide. During the past 30 years we have emitted 70 ppm of carbon dioxide, the same amount as between 1750 and 1990. So, the carbon dioxide content has increased from the pre-industrial level of 280 ppm to 420 ppm, a 50% increase. The world’s scientists agree that the planet is in deep trouble. I feel a strong obligation and responsibility to my own and the world’s grandchildren. They will govern the world in 2050. Looking back at what we did to save the planet, will they see us as good ancestors? I hope I can honestly say that I tried. •

Read more: A life in water – Gustaf Olsson talks to Erika Yarrow-Soden about some of the motivations behind his latest book and his long career in water.

Find out about IWA’s Climate Smart Utilities initiative here