17 June 2017

Water for life

Options Magazine Summer 2017: Q&A with IIASA researcher Yoshihide Wada, deputy director of the IIASA Water Program. His current research includes a global assessment of the sustainability of future food production under socioeconomic and climate change, and water scarcity.

© Bernhard Rothkappel | IIASA

© Bernhard Rothkappel | IIASA

Q: What interests you about water supply and demand around the world?

A: When I started my career, researchers were looking at the natural water cycle without considering how humans use and manage water. My background is in social and political science and I wanted to bring in this human dimension. I had to develop my own approach to calculate industrial, domestic, and agricultural water use. Once I had created a global map of water demand I could overlay this with a map of water supply to see where the two are mismatched and water scarcity will occur.

Another very important facet is groundwater. Data on groundwater resources are very scarce, so my team and I collected data on groundwater pumping rates around the world and assessed whether that was balanced by ‘recharging’ from rainfall. We discovered several regions where the rate of groundwater use was unsustainable, and they were not yet aware.

Q: How does your research help countries create policies to prevent water stress?

A: These global assessments have identified areas that suffer from water scarcity, and where groundwater is being depleted. That’s good progress scientifically but it is not enough for policy development. At IIASA we go beyond the assessment to look at measures that can be used on the ground.

Part of my work, for example, has been looking at which management options are available and realistic for different regions. These might include improving irrigation efficiency, or building new storage infrastructure and desalination plants.

Q: How are you working with policymakers to apply these options?

A: As part of the IIASA Water Futures and Solutions Initiative we are working to help reduce water stress and improve water quality in Uganda and the areas around Lake Victoria. Under the Integrated Solutions for Water, Energy, and Land project we are developing sustainable solutions that work not only for water, but also the food and energy sectors. We are currently focusing on the Zambezi and Indus basins, working closely with local stakeholders who can provide us with important local knowledge.

Q: Much of your work is at a global scale, why is that so important?

A: Sometimes people assume that global assessments are too broad to be of real use, but our world is increasingly international and understanding large-scale patterns can be vital. In a recent study we examined how local groundwater depletion is ‘transported’ to other countries via the international food trade. In Japan, for instance, consumers are buying food from countries that are depleting their groundwater at an unsustainable rate, in order to grow
those same crops for export. When it is international trade driving demand, you need to look at management options that are not just local but also at larger scales.

Q: You are a relatively young deputy director of a program at IIASA. What is that like?

A: As a deputy director I have to look at the wider scientific agenda, and how the program can grow and move forward. Sometimes I miss the days when I was doing the modeling, but these new challenges also give me a chance to develop as a scientist. 

Interview by Daisy Brickhill

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Last edited: 27 June 2017


Yoshihide Wada

Deputy Program Director


T +43(0) 2236 807 241

Options Summer 2017


Dalin C, Wada Y, Kastner T, & Puma MJ (2017). Groundwater depletion embedded in international food trade. Nature 543: 700-704. DOI:10.1038/nature21403.

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