GRC 2008: Water

Forty researchers with interests in water gathered in Birmingham from 20 to 25 July 2008 to explore how their combined expertise could tackle some of tomorrow's key issues.

The scene was set by lectures from academics, Geoff Petts (Westminster - Balancing water resources for uncertain futures), John Langford (Melbourne - Australia’s Water Future under Climate Change), Swinal Samant (Nottingham - Reflections on the Indian Waterfront), John Thornes (Birmingham - A rough guide to environmental art), Yu-seng Lung (Virginia - Ecologically Sustainable Water Management: The Water Quality Perspective), Water Aid project officer Laura Hucks (Safe water and sanitation: barriers to access?), Ofwat Chairman Philip Fletcher (Ofwat - Regulating monopoly water services in England and Wales), and author/journalist Fred Pearce (When the rivers run dry). However it was the diversity of postgraduate research presented that really made this a uniquely rare mix of issues, approaches and solutions, coming from research areas as different as civil engineering and philosophy, historical studies and international development, economics and hydrogeology, business and environmental sciences, geography and education.

One aim of the conference was to provide attendees with an opportunity to develop a range of skills relevant to the research process. All postgraduate attendees gave a short talk but then also presented their work as a poster which provided the focus for one-to-one and small group discussion in specific poster sessions. This allowed in-depth exploration of the topics and also gave important opportunities to develop communication skills. All attendees also produced short articles about their research and these were reviewed by other attendees before the final editing. This provided an experience of the peer review process, assessing the quality of other people’s writing before publication, which underpins academic publication.

The conference format was an experiment, interspersing oral and poster presentations with music (Tim Batty, a hydrology researcher at Birmingham put together an electro-acoustic, piano and choral programme on the theme of water), art (researchers from the History of Art Department gave a tour of water-related exhibits in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts), drama (a workshop around the theme of water), a site visit (to the Ironbridge Gorge Institute) and team-based project work to unleash their creativity on novel solutions to future problems.

While technology already exists for most of the challenges we face, it is how societies, governments and intergovernmental organisations make use of them and balance the competing water needs in a region which is vital to reaching a fair solution for all in a world where the water available per person is considerably less than what we in the developed world consider normal. It was interesting, therefore, that much of the discussion focused on the bigger questions that face societies – who is responsible for finding solutions, how do we finance them, do we need to change our view of our environment and the lifestyles that we can expect?

There were many positive comments from the participants at the close of the conference: “Mixing different approaches to water has provided lots of discussion and room for thought”; “It seems there is more in common between us all than one would find at a discipline-specific conference”; “It was a very different conference. A good mix of everything [which] kept each one of us involved. Very educative”; “This was a well thought out and impressive conference that I enjoyed immensely”; “Useful as an overview of an overwhelmingly big topic, helped to put individual projects in perspective”.

The excitement and enthusiasm generated by the conference was extraordinary so we hope to build on this format for future events, which are already being planned, possibly with broader remits.

In addition it is hoped that video conferencing facilities or similar technologies will allow these researchers to collaborate on a regular basis in future without needing to travel half way round the world.