Too many of the images on our news feeds show the destructive power of water as droughts and floods ravage communities across the globe. The super-charging of the hydrological cycle from increased atmospheric greenhouse gas levels is adding stresses to water resource systems that are already challenged by over-exploitation, degradation and rising demand (Fig.1). Societies everywhere aspire to ‘water security’1, in which our management of water resources meets the diversity of human health, livelihoods, nature, and production needs, while reducing water risks to acceptable and manageable levels. The urgency of overcoming the gap between aspiration and the reality of water insecurity for billions of people was recognized by heads of government and heads of state who took part in the High-Level Roundtable on Water Security convened at the Conference of the Parties (COP) 27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022. They called for increased global cooperation, ramping up of investment, and higher political priority for water. Governments, for the first time, agreed explicitly at COP27 2 on the critical role of water systems in climate action.

It will be surprising for many to read, given the complexity and urgency of water insecurity, that the United Nations (UN) 2023 Water Conference, to be held in New York on 22–24 March, will be the first intergovernmental conference on water in forty-six years. The last such conference, in 1977, set out an action plan for water that shaped the evolution of water policy and management over the decades that followed. This year’s conference must do more; it is an unmissable opportunity to chart a path to water security for a future in which water systems — integrating complex political, social, ecological, and economic as well as hydro–climatic dynamics — are undergoing changes in unprecedented ways. As water risks become more uncertain, predictions for burgeoning future water demand must be reconciled with the ability to meet these amplified needs within planetary boundaries. For water research and innovation, now is a critical moment to set out how priorities should change to advance and accelerate transformations of water systems for future water security. Water innovation and investment trajectories are critical components in not only delivering Sustainable Development Goal Six (SDG6), but all seventeen.

Fig. 1
figure 1

International Water Management Institute

Water systems across the globe are compromised by human actions.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Simplified overview of the research and innovation mission for transforming the circular economy of waste water, inspired by ref. 10.

Mismatch between water research priorities and needs in the Global South

Conventional strategies for water security using assessments based on past hydrology are becoming less reliable as the effects of non-stationarity3 on hydrological regimes and water risks are increasingly felt4. Those responsible for policies, investments and water management expect water research to deliver the updated knowledge, new data, and innovations they need to adapt their strategies to the future. This will become more demanding as water security is further weakened by every increment of climate warming, and adaptation measures to deliver relief become more complex and less effective, particularly when this exceeds 2° C (ref. 5). When changing water regimes are overlain on demographic and economic trends, increasing and newly emerging hot spots of water insecurity risk become clear. Populations with the highest exposure to future water insecurity are in the Global South, because of complex hydrology and high levels of water-related risks, and because advances in infrastructure, governance and water management have lagged6,7.

Researchers bring vital knowledge, local context, evidence, and tested innovations to catalyse the advances needed for vulnerable populations to achieve water security gains. However, it is arguable that there are gaps8 between many current water research programmes and the insight and solutions required to address the challenges in the Global South. Different drivers and motivations result in priorities focused on developing cutting-edge innovation and impact-factor-worthy results but not impact on the ground.

The mismatch is made worse by the absence in priority setting of the voices of those from the Global South who have the most influence on future policy and action. These implementers are rarely involved in the co-design, demand-led framing, or clear communication of agendas for water research9. In recent international meetings contributing to the planning of the Water Action Agenda for the New York conference, stakeholders from the Global South have challenged the relevance and applicability of research outputs and advances from water science groups.

Catalysing demand-led research and innovation for water systems transformation

If developments in knowledge and innovation are to meet the needs and motivations of governments, community leaders, businesses, the financial sector, development agencies and conservation advocates, research design must consider water dynamics across scales and sectors and deliver locally and regionally contextualized evidence and tested solutions that work within the complex environmental, economic, and political systems at play. The lead-up to the New York conference thus provided an important opportunity to clarify and articulate their needs and priorities.

The Transformative Futures for Water Security (TFWS) initiative was explicitly designed to capture the priorities for scientific advances to support the Global South’s moves towards more urgent and coherent policies and action. An early concept for the initiative was discussed in a stakeholder panel at the 9th World Water Forum in Dakar, Senegal, in March 2022. The key feedback was that research needed to be better aligned to deliver knowledge, data and innovation for water governance and management. A revised concept, centred on a multi-stakeholder and multi-regional dialogue, was presented at the Dushanbe Water Conference in June 2022, and adopted into the Call to Action to support the Water Action Decade and preparation for the UN 2023 Water Conference.

South–South dialogue on future water security with youth co-guardianship

The aim of the TFWS dialogues was to identify high-ambition missions for inclusive, science-based action on water security supported by stakeholder coalitions, or mission-driven alliances (Fig. 2)10. A critical component of the design and execution was that youth representatives, who have the greatest stake in future water security, were active ‘co-guardians’ of the dialogues and co-leaders of the mission-driven alliances.

Online TFWS dialogues were held over December 2022 and January 2023 across eight regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America with more than 1,000 participants and 400 institutions involved. Each event brought together representatives from eight stakeholder groups — young water professionals and activists, policymakers and implementers from regional and national levels, local government and public water service providers, knowledge generators, the private sector, funders and investors, civil society and non-governmental organizations, and different water users. Through a facilitated, nine-hour process, each regional dialogue focused on the central question: ‘What are high-ambition, collective actions that will create a strong alignment of knowledge and research, policy, business and on-the-ground implementation to deliver future water security?’

Missions for science-based action on water security

The culminating event for the TFWS initiative was a final, in-person conference held in Cape Town in February 2023. This brought together 175 representatives from 55 countries and more than 140 organizations representing the regional dialogues, each stakeholder group, and additional global institutions. The conference identified missions that capture the Global South’s priorities for water knowledge, research, and innovation. The various stakeholders emphasized the need to move away from projects to long-term missions, around which coalitions of researchers, funders, policymakers can align. Each mission sets an ambition for transformation of water systems that will catalyse future-ready innovation, and inclusive, science-based actions including policy change, investment, and private and community sector actions, for key challenge areas. Stakeholders called for missions to:

  • Build farmers’ resilience to climate change and water risks — by using climate-smart interventions to raise water productivity and transform agriculture;

  • Deliver sustainable, stakeholder-driven water sanitation and health services — with accountable institutions, adequate information and policies to achieve universal access;

  • Increase freshwater availability — through circular management of wastewater everywhere, new technologies for non-conventional water, and cutting non-revenue losses;

  • Make water infrastructure future ready — using ecological and built infrastructure that is complementary, equitable and resilient;

  • Overcome data and information barriers — by developing and operationalizing digital solutions for basins and aquifers worldwide;

  • Make water decisions fit for the future — by integrating the full range of values of water and the objectives of multiple sectors and stakeholders and their tradeoffs;

  • Deliver good water governance and transboundary cooperation — that is inclusive, participatory, equitable, accountable, responsive and smart;

  • Adapt to future water regimes and risks — with enhanced climate information, preparedness, management innovation and capacity development;

When these come together in one area, be it country, river basin or region, these will catalyse critical responses to the major challenges identified.

Demand-led priorities for knowledge, evidence, technologies, and innovation

The TFWS dialogues used a ‘future-search’ methodology11 in which participants collectively explored past influences on water security and then envisioned a scenario for change as a basis for future water security. Stakeholders identified how they expect to achieve transformations in water systems and, based on this, assessed the critical gaps in knowledge, policies and capabilities that will need to be overcome for future water security. While each regional dialogue highlighted locally specific challenges, common themes also emerged. These reveal a demand-led package that should guide priorities for knowledge, research, technologies, and innovation:

  • Multi-level water governance — to ensure that solutions can be effectively sought, negotiated and implemented at local through to transboundary levels, to address the complexity of the interests at play in water security, while addressing power and politics;

  • Multi-stakeholder dialogues — to bridge policy, practice and science, and make whole-systems change inclusive of all voices, to facilitate cooperation and collaboration and lead effectively to shared, meaningful and sustainable decisions that foster rapid implementation;

  • Gender equality — to ensure that, through equal participation, enhanced knowledge delivery and inclusive leadership, women’s expertise and insight are mobilized, providing more and better data, for inclusive transformation in water systems;

  • Youth in leadership — to ensure that institutions include youth in decision-making to meaningfully reflect the big stake they have in future water security, develop capacities and intergenerational learning, and new ways of communicating science findings are harnessed;

Stakeholders identified that new models for coherent policy setting across sectors and geopolitical boundaries are needed, based on a common understanding among key decision-makers of the complexity of water security, and the need for adaptive policies over the long term. They called for valuation of water to address cultural, spiritual, environmental, and social values in addition to economic values. They identified that new models for financing water are needed, in which funders and investors, both public and private, are partners with other stakeholders in catalysing and sustaining whole-of-system change.

Stakeholders recognized the importance of new technologies for data generation, building on remote sensing and using innovations such as blockchain, and artificial intelligence (AI) to support analysis, assessment and forecasting for evidence-based planning and management. They called for open access to data through innovations in shared models for data management and the integration of citizen science. The data underpinning water security should address systemic interlinkages across the nexus of water, energy, food, health and ecosystems as a basis for equitable and inclusive management of water resources across multiple uses.

The dialogues emphasized the (often forgotten) role of Indigenous knowledge and the need to understand how to combine ancestral and cultural knowledge with scientific knowledge. There was also a call for research to help understand colonial legacy in water agreements and management, as well as thoughtful conversations about what it means to decolonize water science.

Urgency and commitment

The need for high ambition in the development of future solutions will certainly be articulated by many speakers in New York. Governments are likely to describe the nature of local and regional water emergencies impacting their communities and call for new action, but the solutions needed are also beyond this scale. A call for global responses is required due to the interconnected nature of the dynamics and co-dependencies across water security, climate security, food security and energy security.

Water research and innovation should not focus on just technology and data developments but elevate innovation in how to transform water systems. There is a call to think outside the ‘water box’ to bring on board all key stakeholders that have serious impacts on water resources and who make decisions that affect water security. Priorities should be led by stakeholders’ ambitions and the need for transformative strategies integrating scaling of change, action across scales and sectors, alignment of finance and investment engagement, and co-ownership as well as fit for purpose governance and policy development. Without new thinking, knowledge and innovation, ambition will not be met. This would mean the SDGs cannot be delivered12, global needs for food security will be limited, energy transition and biodiversity will be blunted13, and capital at risk across the economy will multiply. Researchers around the world have a critical role to play in addressing the knowledge and innovation needs of water security implementers.