‘‘The worst case is that people start fighting for the water they can’t live without”

Interview: William Ham BevanDr Ana Mijic

Water is an essential resource and it’s endlessly replenishable – in theory. But if we look at how fast the climate has changed in the recent past and its impact on the water cycle, it’s possible that in the future we may witness devastating floods and water scarcity. Long-term planning is essential, and it’s this work that is my imperative.

As an engineer and hydrologist, my work looks at water within the bigger picture. I focus on long-term planning for physical systems, and what this means for policies on the ground.

In India, for instance, we’ve asked farmers directly how they irrigate their fields, and then incorporated their behaviour into a new water-management model. And in a year-long attachment to the Environment Agency, I’ve looked at the relationship between tourism, environmental pressures and water management in the Cumbria catchment, in a project to test new tools and methods to manage ecosystems. We’re also looking at pressures on water management in London, where there’s huge demand for further development. 

What we are doing is new, and the government’s 25-year environmental plan is a great starting point. We aim to change how we assess and incorporate the role of people in the water cycle. We draw on historical behaviour and try to build models that predict the future. If we want to manage water better, we need to understand the social element and how it interacts with the physical system.

Urban development alters our demand for water and also levels of flood risk, as well as creating pollution. Typically, models of physical water resources don’t combine the human behavioural element, or the impact of our activities on the natural water cycle. Combining these different models is a technical as well as a conceptual challenge.

If we create models and tools that will ultimately be useful, we need to work with the people who make the policy decisions. It’s important for me to know, for instance, how the Environment Agency operates and what knowledge it requires from the scientific community.

One fundamental problem is the mismatch of the needs of the global economy and the pressure that puts on natural resources. We experience the impact of global warming through our water.

In the last few decades, carbon emissions have soared, and the population continues to increase. Sustainable growth is one of our most difficult challenges. With water management, the spatial element becomes important – can we move water from regions with too much to those that have too little? Or when we are deciding where to build, do we look for a natural environment that supports that growth?

We’re trying to see how we can co-ordinate the interests of the environment, land regulators and infrastructure – they’re all connected, and we need to find solutions for all these interests. A systems-thinking approach would bring real innovation to our water management. It wouldn’t work, for instance, if I proposed a new but energy-intensive solution to water management – it would just ship the problem elsewhere.

For me, success means we can create a new framework, and tools within it, to see water management in a much broader context – something that models physical systems but embeds human behaviour.

The greatest danger is that we will change and damage the natural environment beyond its regeneration capacity"

Dr Ana Mijic

If we could simulate 100 years into the future taking into account key interdependencies in the water management system, we’d have a better idea of any unintended consequences of development decisions we make today. The greatest danger is that we will change and damage the natural environment beyond its regeneration capacity. If we don’t change the underlying framework of assessing development to move towards systems approaches, we won’t change what we do in practice.

At the moment, we are at the theoretical stage – I really hope one day we will deliver science that has a real impact.

Dr Ana Mijic is Senior Lecturer in Water Management in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.