Hallway Conversations – Stefan Uhlenbrook

A –Streams of Thought– contribution by Andrea Popp.


Stefan Uhlenbrook at EGU 2017.

Stefan Uhlenbrook is working for the United Nations (UN) as the Coordinator of the World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP) and is the Director of the Programme Office on Global Water Assessment in Perugia, Italy. Additionally, he holds a professorship for experimental hydrology at Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands. Previously, he worked at UNESCO-IHE (Delft) as Professor of Hydrology as well as Vice-Rector and Director a.i. for Academic and Student Affairs. Stefan Uhlenbrook did his PhD and habilitation on investigating runoff generation processes at the University of Freiburg in Germany. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Uhlenbrook at this year’s EGU General Assembly in Vienna where I interviewed him about his work and also asked for some advice for young hydrologists.

AP: Did you envision yourself working for the UN and how did you transition from pure science to your current job?

SU: It’s not that I always wanted to work for the UN, but as a scientist and as a hydrologist I was always very much interested in political processes. The chance to work for the UN came slowly when I moved to Delft where I was at the institute for water education of the UNESCO. There I became more and more involved with UN tapped activities. I was always very interested in water development, social development and what that means for poor countries, and how better science and in particular hydrological understanding can help to support development pathways. So, I was slowly going into that direction and since 2013 I’m an actual UN International Civil Servant.

AP: There still seems to be a discrepancy between knowledge acquired by research and implementing that knowledge into the “real” world – how can we better bridge the gap between science and practice?

SU: That’s a very good question that drives me every day. Now at the UN, I talk to policy makers, ministers or heads of state on a weekly basis. To them I try to communicate about our work which is basically your work—translating research into digestible pieces of research—so that policy makers can take that up. But for sure there is still a huge gap! The research you or an institute such as Eawag (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology) is doing is excellent, but to apply that in the real world is often not possible. Decision-making processes are complex—there are many factors, many stakeholders; there are beautiful technical solutions that will never see the light because of other social and economic constraints which are very important for the decision-making process. It’s impossible to include all research all the time. So, you might argue that research is not taking up, but you could also argue that research is too limited to feed the decision-making process because there are so many other factors that play in. And how to improve this? Well, I’m speaking for young researchers now—I think everyone should really think of what the work you are doing actually means in terms of supporting society. Scale out, see the big picture and put your work into perspective! Also, you have to be able to explain to really anyone what you’re doing and why that is relevant.

AP: Wastewater seems to be a big topic this year. Both, the World Water Week in Stockholm and this year’s World Water Development report, are focused on wastewater. Can you tell us about the potential of wastewater and the essential outcomes of that report?

SU: The UN always decides on one topic per year and the world water assessment program that I am leading provides the thematic background for this. This year’s topic is wastewater and we called it “Wastewater, the untapped resource”. And this already tells


The UN world water development report on wastewater.

the main story: wastewater is not a nuisance or a burden you want to get rid of, it is a resource! It is a resource for water, nutrients, metals or organic material. Actually, more than 80% of the globally produced wastewater is discharged without proper treatment. We have to change that and we can only do this by seeing wastewater as a resource. That’s the main message!


AP: Where do you see the pitfalls or the bottlenecks on how to overcome the current situation of wastewater?

SU: On the one hand the exciting news is the commitment of the global community to reach the sustainable development goals which include halving the proportion of untreated wastewater till 2030. This is huge! How to do this? High-tech, expensive technology will probably not work in developing countries. I strongly believe that we need robust, low-cost techniques that are applicable and perform well when it comes to wastewater treatment in developing countries.

On the other hand, one of our conclusions was that the bottleneck is not necessarily technology. A lot of great technology is already developed but adapting it to field conditions and implementing it is one of the biggest bottlenecks! And that has to do with legislation, financing, governance and many, many other factors. So, technology and research is of course important but to make a difference in the world it often depends on governance and finance at the end.

AP: Is wastewater somewhat neglected when talking about the water footprint?

SU: I would say yes. The global rise of water withdrawal is steadily increasing with a bit more than 1% per year. This is very unsustainable! From this withdrawal, more than 50% of the water becomes wastewater, so it is a non-consumptive use. A majority of human water use produces wastewater at the end. That is a huge quantity and quality problem! Water pricing is basically done for the costs of extracting the water and not cleaning the wastewater. We need combined pricing that not only accounts for withdrawal and transport of water but also for discharge and clean-up. Some countries like Germany have that already. We all should have an interest in higher water prices, also in developing countries. Cheap water is very expensive at the end!

AP: Where do you see the biggest opportunities or challenges in the next ten years in the field of water sciences?

SU: I’m for sure not the first one who says that we need more integrated approaches, and I think that’s a really big challenge for young hydrologists; to make truly interdisciplinary projects, getting involved in them and doing your research in that framework. It is a challenge but also an opportunity because only more interdisciplinary approaches will open new solutions to water issues. Having hydrological research for the sake of doing very detailed process research is always needed, but it is also necessary to embed this into a larger integrated framework and context. I think that’s probably the biggest challenge. And then, I repeatedly hear about big data or data mining. But lack of data is the big problem in the development world. This can only be solved by better monitoring, remote sensing, and low-tech monitoring systems and sensors.

AP: Do you have any advice for early career hydrologists on how to contribute to a more sustainable water future?

SU: Don’t be shy—communicate at events like political meetings and try to contribute to societal development. Also, I think putting your own work in a bigger context and looking for partnerships in this increasingly connected world is very important. Use networks in an effective way for either improving your research, informing others about your results or connecting your research to other results. The generation 2.0 should really utilize this methodology for reaching out and increasing the impact of the work you do!

Learn more about this year’s UN World Water Development Report on wastewater

About the author:
Andrea Popp (@waterpaths) is a PhD student at Eawag and ETH Zurich.

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