Charting trends for an uncertain water future

The water sector finds itself facing unprecedented challenges. The World Economic Forum has placed water at the top of its global risks register, and few countries and communities will be left unaffected by the major drivers impacting upon water: climate change, rapid urbanisation, increasing consumption, and demand for food and energy.

The demand for water and sanitation services is greater than it has ever been, and will only rise as the world’s population grows by an estimated 2 billion by 2050. No wonder water sits at the top of the political agenda.

The recent adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), at least provides an ambitious framework to address these challenges. By putting water at the centre of the global agenda, the SDGs also put water professionals at the heart of finding the solutions to these challenges. This presents opportunities for the water sector to develop innovative solutions and to scale-up best practice.

Water management is a complex multi-disciplinary topic, and water professionals come in many different guises, including those who don’t work in the water sector but who influence it, for good or bad. If we are to plan and design the resilient water sector of the future, we need to recognise that we must work across disciplines to identify the challenges, opportunities and solutions that will deliver a sustainable water future.

One of the unique strengths of IWA is bringing together experts from across the globe and specialisations into communities of practice, IWA’s Specialist Groups. Connecting people in a way that accelerates the science, innovation and practice, can make a difference in addressing water challenges and pushes the sustainability agenda.

The recently published Global Trends and Challenges in Water Science, Research and Management Compendium, draws upon the expertise of IWA’s Specialist Groups to help address these challenges. We have identified the hot topics, innovations and global trends in water science, research and management that will impact water in future; and highlighted a diversity of approaches to solving the challenges. So what do we water professionals think will be the defining trends of coming years?

A revolution in water and wastewater systems with DNA-tools

DNA sequencing technologies are revolutionising our capabilities for identifying the vast number of microorganisms present in drinking water, wastewater and other water systems. The identification is getting fast and cheap, and reliable surveillance of water systems can soon take place. In parallel, the development of public databases with libraries of all relevant microbes in specific water systems, containing all available knowledge about their function, is being developed. It is expected that DNA technologies for onsite surveillance will be on the market within the next 3-5 years. They have potential to transform the field and enable fast knowledge-driven water quality management.

Resources do matter 

The resources present in used water are a perfect example how we can preserve and recycle the planet’s finite resources. The water, energy, nutrients, metals, plastics and much more that is embedded in wastewater are a valuable and increasingly viable part of a cyclical economy. Technology is moving fast and in the right direction; safety and quality can be assured; all that remains is changing mind-sets to ensure acceptance. Products should be judged by their quality and not by their origin and we must be inventive and add value by transforming recovered resources into commodities that are desired and valued by consumers.

One Water, One Health

The concept of “One Water” is growing in importance across the globe. This trend assesses water as a whole and not in individual silos such as drinking water, wastewater or grey water. The importance of water to health adds a new dimension to the concept to become “One Water, One Health”. This includes the detection and risk management of known and newly emerging contaminants in water sources. Future technical and scientific developments will focus on the production of more quantitative information on pathogens in water, standardization, multiplex assays and, critically, developing protocols for applying new techniques facilitating the automation of processes.

The 21st century will be defined by the transition to a knowledge economy that values knowledge resources – the quantity, quality and accessibility of information available to people – more highly than ever before in human history.

Our research into the trends influencing the science, research and management of water highlights that the integration of technologies and solutions, and the application of existing science and research, will invent new science. The desire for knowledge exchange and collaboration between research and practice is a strong driver, particularly beyond traditional topical and geographical boundaries, reflecting the globalised nature of both the challenges we face and the solutions we can develop.



The Global Trends and Challenges in Water Science, Research and Management compendium, draws upon the expertise of IWA’s Specialist Groups


Hong Li

Asia and Oceania Director
Hong has been with IWA since 2009 and currently is the Regional Director for Asia & Oceania. She previously headed IWA’s Science, Practice and Policy agenda. Hong has vast experiences working with water leaders world-wide (e.g. through Spec... Read full biography