Engineering solutions that put society front and centre

Dr Veena Srinivasan accepting IWA’s Water and Development Award for Research from IWA President Tom Mollenkopf at the Opening Ceremony of IWA’s Water and Development Congress in Kigali, Rwanda

Winner of IWA’s Water and Development Award for Research, Dr Veena Srinivasan explains why it is critical to consider social needs and impacts when engineering water and sanitation solutions.

By Erika Yarrow-Soden

As an expert in socio-hydrology, Dr Veena Srinivasan focuses on a discipline that puts the human aspect into water engineering. Not commonly discussed, the field finds solutions that focus on the needs of communities, delivering benefits that cut to the heart of local considerations and recognise the need to make provision for societal change.

IWA Water and Development Awards

Srinivasan’s work earned her recognition as a winner of IWA’s prestigious Water and Development Awards 2023, which were unveiled during the opening ceremony of the IWA Water and Development Congress on 10 December, in Kigali, Rwanda.

The awards recognise excellence, leadership and innovation in the water sector, and aim to encourage the sustainable management of water in low- and middle-income countries. Srinivasan was honoured in the Research category, while Dr Doulaye Kone, of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was recognised in the Practice category.

Judged by a diverse panel of experts, and awarded in recognition of outstanding contributions to research or practice that have led to demonstrable impact, the judges noted that Srinivasan demonstrated bravery and passion in her quest to follow an emerging, but much-needed, knowledge path in socio-hydrology.


A water professional with more than 20 years of experience, Srinivasan was also recognised for her establishment of Water, Environment, Land and Livelihoods (WELL) Labs in Bengaluru, India, in 2023.

Based at the Institute for Financial Management and Research (IFMR), WELL Labs (along with Krea University and other centres at IFMR) provide a hub for research and innovation on societal impacts on land and water, and curate and design science-based solutions.

Working with governments, businesses, multilateral institutions and civil society groups to co-create solutions that simultaneously create livelihoods and conserve the environment, WELL Labs takes a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach to the environmental and social threats of climate change, resource depletion, pollution, and food and water insecurity. While understanding that the source of these challenges and their solutions are often unique and local, WELL Labs gathers evidence and designs solutions that can be replicated quickly across regions.

“Humans impact water systems and water systems impact human beings”

Combating India’s water crisis with socio-hydrology

Srinivasan says: “I am proud that my work has been recognised for laying the foundations of socio-hydrology as a discipline. My focus on analysing data and triangulation across datasets represents a significant departure from traditional water resources management methods, and has raised awareness of what kind of science is needed to solve India’s water crisis.”

Socio-hydrology is an interdisciplinary field studying the dynamic interactions and feedbacks between water and people, with areas of research including: study of the historic interplay between hydrological and social processes; analysis of cultural dynamics and their impact on water and society; and process-based modelling of coupled human-water systems.

“Humans impact water systems and water systems impact human beings. There is a relationship that goes in both directions,” says Srinivasan. “If we extract groundwater, water levels drop. But, in the other direction, human behaviour is moulded by water systems. Human behaviour constantly adapts. This behaviour wasn’t traditionally considered in most water management analysis.”

Srinivasan explains that socio-hydrology enables researchers to gain understanding of the impact that drought has on societies; the impact that new technologies can make; how the relationship people have with water changes as they become wealthier; and how behaviour adapts in different ways and across different timescales.

“Over short timescales, people may cut back on water consumption because there is a lot in the media about a drought,” says Srinivasan. “But, over decades, people may shift their values and beliefs in significant ways.

“Most societies, as they develop, are focused on pulling themselves out of poverty. At this stage of development, the environment may not seem to matter so much, and decisions with regards to infrastructure are focused on maximising income.

“But as societies earn more, their values change. This is important to understand because most decisions on infrastructure will remain for 50-100 years. The climate might change over that period and what humans aspire to will also change. These factors and how they are responded to will impact water systems and govern whether they advance or collapse.

Putting people at the heart of development

Improved understanding of how people respond in the medium- and long-term as societies develop would result in better investments. Srinivasan provides the example of India’s water crisis: “It is a hot, dry country. There isn’t enough water for everyone, and there is also a climate crisis. In most developing countries, there is an engineering emphasis in terms of development. Engineering is incredibly important. However, what isn’t considered often enough is the human side and human interaction with engineered systems.”

There has been a tendency to develop infrastructure that provides a solution but that doesn’t take into account the way societies develop, explains Srinivasan. This results in both over- and under-investment because of a lack of understanding about the way humans behave or interact with technology.

Srinivasan provides the example of dams, where there has been a huge amount of well-intentioned investment, but, she explains, this hasn’t always had the impact that communities were hoping for.

“Instead of thinking about engineering solutions to India’s water crisis, we need to think about coming up with a socio-technical solution that is sensible and realistic,” she says.

The example of Bengaluru

Bengaluru is India’s third most populous city and fourth most populous urban agglomeration. When wastewater treatment facilities became unable to keep pace with development, the authorities imposed a decentralised wastewater treatment law that requires apartment compounds of a certain size to have their own decentralised wastewater unit. With utilities unable to keep up with demand in response to this new law, it was left to developers to build their own treatment facilities. “People only knew how to build traditional wastewater treatment plants,” says Srinivasan. “These are centralised systems that required high expertise. The result was systems that didn’t function very well.

“Instead of thinking about engineering solutions to India’s water crisis, we need to think about coming up with a socio-technical solution that is sensible and realistic”

“Suddenly, you have an example of social hydrology, where you have to solve this problem of making apartment compounds in the city capable of using complex technologies. There was also the problem of how to deal with the treated wastewater.

“The city authorities said that all of the treated wastewater had to be used within the apartment compound. This is a highly dense city and people don’t have space to use this water for irrigation.”

While some complexes invested in dual plumbing so that some of this water could be used for toilet flushing, there was still vast amounts of wastewater that the city required, by law, to remain on site. “It was a law that was designed to fail,” says Srinivasan, explaining that most rules for recycling wastewater had not been set.

“The standards that work in other countries do not necessarily work in Indian conditions,” adds Srinivasan. “We need to build alliances and coalitions to collectively solve India’s water problems. It’s about bringing people together in a way that looks at the science and engineering that doesn’t jeopardise public health and doesn’t discount human behaviour. The solution has to be simple and economical.

“At WELL Labs we work to build solutions to solve these very complex problems.”

Development in low- and middle-income countries

“For low-income countries, finances remain the critical bottleneck,” says Srinivasan. “It’s a chicken and egg situation, where you need water for populations to be healthy and able to work, and so fuel growth.

“For middle-income countries, such as India and China, that have an economy of a certain size, we have the pieces to resolve the water crisis, but we haven’t been able to pull them together.

“We know how to do technology, but we have a problem of agency and coordination. The challenge is designing socio-technical systems.

“In India, we have technologies that are stranded from the systems and that is the big challenge that we face. I don’t think it’s just about money anymore.” •

More information

Find out more about IWA’s Awards, including the 2024 edition, at: