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A paradox of accelerating change

As much as the matters confronting humanity’s, and the planet’s, water security become more acute, so does the need to find better ways of doing the same thing, and a desire for new ways to do better things [sensu 1]. More and more there is an expectation that we should recover oppressed or lost ways of doing what was practiced for millennia. At the same time, also paradoxically, there are increasing efforts to resist change, and keep the status quo, with parts of society living in a bubble, recognising (only) the trends, voices and content that they (or we) want. Our collection of papers addresses the 2023 World Water Day theme of ‘accelerating change’: what happens to water when human populations grow and consumption patterns develop and change, when a planetary system responds to, and is layered by the multiple, varied and escalating responses of humanity.

Climate change amplifies much of the paradox, creating conditions that are leading to significant hydrologic and water quality shifts. Douville et al.’s interpretation of the global response to water security threats is that scientists and policymakers have underestimated the attention they deserve due to an ongoing focus on rising temperatures and the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events [2]. They argue that the increasing variability of the water cycle itself has escalating implications for all water use sectors. Adaptation strategies that help reduce both water-related climate risk and the dependence of carbon mitigation strategies on water resources thus need to be rapidly developed and adopted into practice.

A similar point is made by Fisher and Smith in their timely review of decarbonisation efforts in global cities [3]. The urban water industry faces escalating costs for water recycling, trans-regional transmission, and desalination, in response to public and regulatory water quality demands. The scramble for the water industry to acquire zero carbon status has begun, the authors argue. Lane picks up on this theme, urging the UN Water Convention to “highlight the water-related actions with the largest impacts on reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” from agriculture to wastewater treatment plants and wetland management [4]. In the same vein, Rittman argues that ameliorating water pollutants using environmental biotechnologies can mitigate climate change [5].

As hydrological impacts accelerate, our efforts to respond are also hastening, drawing upon technologies for monitoring and detection. The urgency to respond to antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has reached the water industry. Ottesen et al. reason that surface waters function as key integrators between human and animal health, agriculture, and the environment, thereby serving as focal points for the detection of AMR [6]. They report not just an expanding profile of clinically significant antimicrobial resistance genes, but also an enhanced capacity for detection using enriched (quasimetagenomic) data.

Microplastics in waters are also focusing our attention on local waterways and wherever exposures are possible. In their continent-scale survey of anthropogenic microparticles from a large and widespread number of European lakes spanning environmental gradients, Tanentzap et al. find elevated concentrations where mismanaged waste inputs and wastewater treatment loads are evident, sometimes dramatically so [7].

Our capabilities to amalgamate and use data are growing at the planetary scale too. Kraemer et al. recognise that the amount of chlorophyll-a in surface waters represents a response to changing nutrient availabilities (and therefore land use, infrastructural discharge, and hydrological change) [8]. They show how satellite sensors can be used to assess the spatial and temporal variation of chlorophyll-a by examining trends over a 23-year period for most of the world’s large freshwater lakes.

Interest is also accelerating in nature-based solutions and technologies to address a suite of water quality challenges. For example, antimicrobial-producing species of plants offer biofilter design features by enhancing populations of microbiota which suppress faecal bacterial survival as reported by Galbraith et al. [9].

As technology ‘advances’, so might a public lose touch with everyday realities of where water comes from, and its meaningfulness. Two significant trends reported by authors included in the collection counter this. Schölvinck et al. demonstrate the outcomes and impacts possible from a growing number of water-related citizen science projects, and their value: “raising awareness, democratisation of science, development of mutual trust, confidence, and respect between scientists, authorities and the public, increased knowledge and scientific literacy, social learning, incorporation of local, traditional and indigenous knowledge, increased social capital, citizen empowerment, behavioural change, improved environment, health and livelihoods, and finally motivational benefits” [10]. To realize these benefits, they say, requires carefully considered and meaningful involvement of the public, not just any citizen science as is often and glibly advocated. Benefits are maximised when research funding decisions are made by experts who have experience with public participation in research, and when decision-making about the purpose and design of research is shared with participants.

Second, and as part of an escalating trend in the recognition of relational understandings of our places and our planet, waterways are regarded as having agency. In an Indigenous and non-Indigenous more-than-human collective, Bawaka Country et al.’s guidance reminds us of languages, practices, value systems, and a respectfulness for water that are as much located in a particular place as they are ubiquitous to Indigenous peoples [11]. They implore us to come together—waters, knowledges, peoples—acknowledging and respecting our differences. In doing so people and water co-become.

Perhaps this is the change that most needs to accelerate.


  1. 1. Poland B, Parkes MW, Hancock T, McKibbon G, Chircop A. A Changing Role for Public Health in the Anthropocene: The Contribution of Scenario Thinking for Reimagining the Future. In: Health in the Anthropocene: Living Well on a Finite Planet. University of Toronto Press 2020. pp. 170–188.
  2. 2. Douville H, Allan RP, Arias PA, Betts RA, Caretta MA, Cherchi A, et al. Water remains a blind spot in climate change policies. PLOS Water. 2022; 1(12): e0000058.
  3. 3. Fisher PMJ, Smith D. The water industry and the decarbonisation of cities: A comprehensive review in the context of Cop26. PLOS Water. 2022; 1(6): e0000023.
  4. 4. Lane J. Issues that should be addressed at the UN 2023 Water Conference. PLOS Water. 2023; 2(1): e0000085.
  5. 5. Rittmann BE (2023) Environmental biotechnologies can make water pollutants part of the path to mitigating climate change. PLOS Water 2(3): e0000105.
  6. 6. Ottesen A, Kocurek B, Ramachandran P, Reed E, Commichaux S, Engelbach G, et al. Advancing antimicrobial resistance monitoring in surface waters with metagenomic and quasimetagenomic methods. PLOS Water. 2022; 1(12): e0000067.
  7. 7. Tanentzap AJ, Cottingham S, Fonvielle J, Riley I, Walker LM, Woodman SG, et al. Microplastics and anthropogenic fibre concentrations in lakes reflect surrounding land use. PLOS Biol. 2021; 19(9): e3001389. pmid:34520450
  8. 8. Kraemer BM, Kakouei K, Munteanu C, Thayne MW, Adrian R. Worldwide moderate-resolution mapping of lake surface chl-a reveals variable responses to global change (1997–2020). PLOS Water. 2022; 1(10): e0000051.
  9. 9. Galbraith PJ, Henry R, McCarthy DT. Significant antimicrobial-producing vegetation uniquely shapes the stormwater biofilter microbiome with implications for enhanced faecal pathogen inactivation. PLOS Water. 2023. Forthcoming
  10. 10. Schölvinck A-FM, Scholten W, Diederen PJM. Improve water quality through meaningful, not just any, citizen science. PLOS Water. 2022; 1(12): e0000065.
  11. 11. Bawaka Country including, Burarrwanga L, Ganambarr R, Ganambarr-Stubbs M, Ganambarr B, Maymuru D, et al. Gapu, water, creates knowledge and is a life force to be respected. PLOS Water. 2022; 1(4): e0000020.