Illustration by JoeRael Elliott

Water is fundamental to all human activity. We need it to drink and irrigate crops, of course, and we use it to transport goods and generate electricity. There’s a complex interplay between environmental conditions — a landscape’s hydrogeology — and society — our policies, infrastructure, and individual behaviors.

“Water scarcity can change how people use water, which can trigger changes in collective behavior — government — which can then change the water system,” says former SFI Omidyar Fellow Marion Dumas, now at the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics.

Those feedback loops can lead to significant changes. For instance, a 2006 study of a water basin in southeastern Australia observed that early policies favoring agricultural use of water led to a cycle of resource degradation followed by policy responses that furthered that degradation. That left the system more vulnerable to crises. 

But there isn’t yet a robust framework for bridging the individual, institutional, and physical aspects of water systems research.  

"Hydrologists and social scientists have independently addressed water-related research questions that are tractable without the other side,” says Christa Brelsford, a former ASU-SFI fellow now at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “But there is also true coupling where you can’t understand the problem without understanding both sides.” 

June 11-14 at SFI, Brelsford and Dumas are convening scientists from fields ranging from hydrology and environmental engineering to political science and economics to find deeper ways of understanding and evaluating socio-hydrological feedbacks.

The workshop will allow space for participants to offer short presentations on their individual early stage work. But the heart of the meeting will be research jams — breakout sessions that mix researchers from different disciplines to share research methods, explore solutions to roadblocks, and begin to develop a common lexicon.

“People from different fields need sustained time to talk with one another, to learn each other’s vocabulary and also what makes a good problem or a worthwhile question,” says Brelsford. “And broadly, we want to identify what characteristics make a system more resilient.”

Read more about the Socio-Hydrological Dynamics workshop.