The Knowledge to Act

Navigating Troubled Waters


Water. We often take for granted that one of the most essential elements we need to survive will always be there for us.

In reality, streams, rivers, lakes and groundwater are under threat because of forces such as pollution, population growth, geopolitical conflict, competition over resources, and climate change.

In fact, one of the primary ways we feel the effects of climate change is through water. The availability of water was once predictable in many parts of the world. Now floods and droughts threaten to destroy homes and livelihoods, crops and animals, and human health and productivity.

Plant growing through cracked mud

Shocks and stresses are placing unprecedented pressures on ecosystems and livelihoods, potentially overwhelming existing capacities to respond. Investing in water and sanitation infrastructure is therefore essential—as is coordinated action on climate change, resilience and adaptation, peacebuilding and sustainable water policies. We also need to champion and protect natural-based solutions, such as wetlands, which bring us a whole host of environmental and economic benefits.

In this uncertain context, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals will mean redesigning economic policies, development programs and business strategies to perform under a variety of new conditions. It also means that governments should adopt policy and programming solutions based on reliable scientific evidence.

For example, Canada banned phosphates from detergents when research showed that they are the leading cause of lake-choking algal blooms. Most developed countries soon followed Canada’s lead. This policy decision stemmed from studies at what is now IISD Experimental Lakes Area, in which scientists divided a lake with a plastic curtain and added nitrogen and carbon to both sides. One half was also loaded with phosphorus, and that side of the lake soon erupted in bright green blooms. It didn’t take long for governments to take action after this clear evidence became public.

Another example is a series of experiments that provided a wider understanding of acid rain, leading to the Clean Air Act in the United States. And the ground-breaking METALLICUS experiment contributed to greater understanding of how mercury accumulates in an ecosystem, moving from industrial smokestacks to fish. This work is referenced in the world’s first global Convention on Mercury.

IISD advances water solutions that are sustainable, based on evidence and affect a vast number of people across the globe.

Our experts conduct unique freshwater science, economic analyses and hydrologic assessments so that governments are well informed before making final decisions. We also champion the management of watersheds across national boundaries, bringing everyone to the table, to ensure comprehensive dialogue and informed decisions.