World Water Development Report 2016: Reflections from an ESPA researcher

Dr Wouter Buytaert
March 22, 2016

The World Water Development Report (WWDR), released every year, is the United Nation’s flagship report on water, providing a comprehensive review of the state of the world’s freshwater resources and aims to provide decision-makers with the tools to implement sustainable use of water. The UN’s World Water Development Report of 2016 focuses on “Water and Jobs”.

Dr. Wouter Buytaert, Lead Principal Investigator of the ESPA funded Mountain-EVO project gives his reflections on the report.


Scientific and technological innovations obviously play a crucial role in the creation of new jobs, and the water sector is no different.

In the report, pervasive sensor networks, citizen science, and similar “participatory” technologies such as those that we explore in the Mountain-EVO project are identified as some of the most disruptive. After all, the world’s water cycle is still very poorly monitored. Even in highly developed regions such as the UK, the density of hydrometeorological monitoring instruments is still extremely low. Take for instance rainfall: even the Environment Agency’s network of 2400 rain gauges only sample around a billionth of England’s land surface. Even with new sensing methods such as radars and satellites, uncertainties in rainfall, and in extension water availability, and drought and flood risk are still extremely high. In developing countries with a much sparser and less well maintained monitoring network, these uncertainties are even higher. It is no surprise then, that the lack of data is still a major roadblock to manage water resource, reduce water related risks, and adapt to future changes such as global warming in a way that supports human development optimally.

Cost-effective sensing technologies hold a lot of promise to fill this enormous data gap. At the same time, it is also the perfect catalyst to stimulate commercial activity and innovation, especially in development countries. The reducing cost of sensors, the low cost of computer components for data storage and processing, and the ubiquitous availability of mobile phone networks for data transmission are easily available to start-up companies and entrepreneurs with limited financial resources. In turn, the emergence of new sensing will generate new streams of data that will need to be processed, analysed and communicated to decision-makers. Also here, new technologies such as mobile phones, tablets, and other interactive media provide plenty of opportunities for new ideas to flourish. Already, farmers in places like Africa and South Asia are using mobile phone technology to monitor water wells and soil moisture, to access weather forecasts, and to learn about irrigation techniques.

Inevitably, disruptive technologies will affect some established businesses. National hydrometeorological monitoring services may see their relevance decline when new start-ups enter the market, and water companies will need to learn how to use the new information and adapt their systems. But all in all, the report identifies tremendous opportunities for job creation and sustainable development, as long as some basic conditions are fulfilled. Among the most important of these conditions is the need to provide training to local technicians, students, and budding entrepreneurs to make the most out of the technological revolution.


Mountain-EVO: Adaptive governance of mountain ecosystem services for poverty alleviation enabled by environmental virtual observatories (NE/K010239-1) is examining how monitoring and knowledge generation of ESS in mountain regions could be improved, and used to support a process of adaptive, polycentric governance focused on poverty alleviation. The project is blending cutting-edge concepts of adaptive governance with technological breakthroughs, integrating citizen science in a broader framework of participatory data processing, knowledge generation and sharing.