22 October 2007

Guest post: "Loss of Knowledge" by Dr. A. Askew, IAHS President

This report is reprinted with permission of the original author from the September 2007 issue of the IAHS Newsletter. It relates to the Workshop on the Loss of Knowledge that was convened by IAHS and WMO as a part of the XXIV General Assembly of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics held in Perugia, Italy, on 13 July 2007.

Editor's Note: I selected, and asked specifically for permission to reprint in its entirety, this report by Dr. Askew because I felt that it represented a commonality with much of the rest of the scientific and government community, or as near to a proper expression of that as could be conveyed to the public on these issues. We are currently seeing the retirement of elders and a coming shift to significantly younger leaders. It is important that we figure out a way to carry on the best of what has been learned by the previous and current leaders in science, as well as ways to interact more efficiently with other fields. Dr. Askew's commentary on this particular workshop at Perugia conveys those needs in a manner appropriate to the outward- and forward-looking scientist from the fields of hydrology and water resources. In the U.S., it's happening in politics, government, diplomacy, military affairs, and much of science: the Baby Boomer generation is reaching retirement age, and Generation X is stepping up.

Loss of Knowledge
by Dr. Arthur Askew, IAHS President

2007 IAHS Scientific Assembly
Workshop HW 3009

This Workshop was organized as a co-operative venture between IAHS and WMO and was planned very much as a workshop in the sense that comparatively few papers were accepted, each author being given 30 minutes for presentation, and the last third of the session was devoted to a general discussion with the aim of summarizing the problems reported and seeking for solutions.

The last day, and particularly the last afternoon of an Assembly, is not the most auspicious time for a meeting. We were therefore pleased that 20 to 30 participants attended and that two or three leading members of the hydrological community joined us for the discussions, even though they did not present papers themselves. One, perhaps erroneous, conclusion is that it is good to convene sessions on the 13th of the month if they fall on a Friday.

The seven papers presented reported on a wide range of causes for the loss of hydrological knowledge. The authors came from six countries and four continents. Their presentations helped to stimulate the lively debate that brought to light the following facts:
  • Stations are closed because of a lack of funding or simply a lack of fuel for transport.
  • Even when the problems faced because of a lack of data are clearly recognized, those who hold the purse strings still cut funding for data collection, storage and interpretation.
  • A lack of accurate data has often led to legally binding agreements being made, e.g. for sharing a water resource, which are impossible to implement.
  • Politicians have little interest in the matter because benefits from the collection of data only accrue after many years, i.e. well beyond the next parliamentary elections.
  • Data collected at regional and national level are not interpreted for use at local/village level.
  • Past records are lost because they are on paper and rot or are eaten by rats – or even used as wrapping paper in the local market – one reason being that those in charge of their storage are not trained and do not appreciate the value of what they are storing.
  • On the other hand, computers and CDs may be stolen or destroyed in time of war, whereas paper records may go untouched because they have no street value.
  • New methods of collecting information on freshwater resources, in particular those based on remote sensing, can appear so attractive to those who do not have a sound understanding of the subject that old traditional methods are abandoned in favour of the new, without consideration of the errors and uncertainty thereby being introduced.
  • In developed countries, technical education is being scaled down in favour of degree courses and so few, if any, young people are being trained as hydrological technicians.
  • In some developing countries, more children now go to school but they then leave the village to work in the neighbouring town and fathers and mothers no longer have the opportunity to pass on to their sons and daughters the old wisdom of the ages.
  • Many Hydrological Services have neither the resources to train staff nor the salaries that would retain them once trained.
The major conclusion was that the basic cause of the loss of knowledge is a lack of appreciation by those in higher authority, above all within the relevant Ministries, of the importance of maintaining long-term programmes for the collection of hydrological data and information and for their safe storage. Consideration of the present situation led to the following comments:
  • Efforts must continue to change government policy, possibly by convincing politicians that their projects will fail if the design data are inadequate.
  • For this purpose, it is important to identify what design and operational data are needed for each facet of the project, including hydrological, technical, social and economic data.
  • From this, an assessment can be made of the uncertainty and likely operational risks resulting from the data shortage.
  • This can lead to evaluation of additional project costs that need to be incurred to overcome the data shortage.
Proposals for action, some old and some new, were put forward including:
  • A set percentage of the cost of any water project could be given to the Hydrological Service which supplies the information used to design the project. This would not immediately provide the data required by the project in question but, over the years, it would ensure that the Service concerned was well enough funded to provide the data and information required for all future projects.
  • Volunteer gauge readers should be given the public recognition that they deserve for their vital role in assessing and monitoring freshwater bodies.
  • There should be greater interaction between Hydrological Services and the users of hydrological data and information because it is the users who benefit from this information
  • Water supply authorities, hydropower companies and other organizations which sell water-related services could be obliged to pay for the collection of data and information that are needed to support their activities.
  • An effort might be made to synthesize the material that is available on estimating the value of hydrological data and information. This synthesis could then be made available to Hydrological Services as an aid to their efforts to increase national funding for such work.
The results of IAHS’s PUB initiative would compliment this and could be distributed as associated material. Professional economists and statisticians should be invited to participate in this work. One proposal of interest was for formal legislation to be introduced that would oblige all those who develop plans for water resource or flood control projects to include therein a quantitative estimate of the uncertainty in any of the design figures presented. This would be required in preliminary plans, detailed designs and in operational plans. Consultants who do not comply with this requirement would be excluded from bidding for future projects. The result would be that those who accept to fund and implement such plans would do so in the face of a clear statement as to uncertainty, and would feel obliged to adopt more conservative options with higher costs or lower productivity so as to reduce that uncertainty to levels which the public will accept. This would be a great step forward for project design in general but, in particular, it would demonstrate publicly the price that is being paid for giving so little support to acquiring and retaining hydrological knowledge. The hope is this would lead to more resources being channeled to data collection and storage and the training of technicians and professionals.

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