Please describe your experience relating to water (and space technologies).

In the Jaffna peninsula, Sri Lanka, where I grew up, we had our own well, yet the water was somewhat brackish: it was good enough for bathing, washing etc. but not for drinking or cooking. We would regularly go to wells in neighbouring houses (where the water was more fresh) to haul water home in buckets. It was a daily chore for me as a child.  Yet, it was part of our lifestyle in that harsh environment, we made do with less, and it never felt that there was a crisis. So, this is not why I became interested in water.

My interest in water came much later through a series of accidents. When I was a child my parents wanted me to be a doctor. However, my uncle who was the only educated person in the family (and was a teacher of zoology) persuaded my parents against it and so I was transferred from biological sciences to physical sciences in high school. I ended up in civil engineering, not knowing what it was about, and with no one to look up to. It turned out I did well in college and wanted to go to graduate school. I was applying to the Asian Institute of Technology and had to choose a specialization. I really wanted to specialize in soil mechanics, but at the last minute chose hydrology, because none of my friends were interested in it, and I had a better chance for a scholarship as there was no competition. I came into hydrology almost by default!

Even after specializing and doing well as a successful researcher I never felt I was working on water resource issues. I looked upon hydrology as an Earth science, not as a resource that impacted people’s lives and livelihoods. I was just being a successful academic enjoying the excitement of science and scientific research. It was only about 10 years ago that I began to see the relevance of the research I was doing for society at large. It is only now that I can relate my research back to the water problems my community is facing in Sri Lanka (although it has come rather too late in my life).

In spite of the inauspicious entry into hydrology and water research, as I immersed myself in research, I became more and more excited. The excitement comes from three sources. First is the challenge of dealing with nature. Second is the challenge of dealing with people. Both posed enormous challenges and uncertainties, which was exciting and exhilarating. There was so much to learn and there was never a dull moment. The third one is the excitement and enjoyment working with students and colleagues from all around the world and the success that comes with it.

This aside I should mention an interesting almost weird story. Back when I was 15 years old, when I had no interest in engineering or water, one day a friend of my father visited us at home. He was an amateur astrologer (palmist), who claims to predict one’s future by reading the lines on the palm. My parents were anxious about me and asked him to read my palm and predict the future. He predicted then that he sees a future in water for me. My parents were disappointed that I may not become a doctor. Then they all wondered what kind of future career there was in water: the best they could come up with that I might become a sanitary inspector.

So it may be that I came into hydrology and water research accidentally, almost by default, but it feels like it was preordained that I was going to end up in water research. This is the story of my life but it is not unique. There are twists and turns successful careers: even as there is some design, there is a place for accidents. 

Could you tell us about your current work, your latest project or your proudest professional moment?

For the last 7 years or so, much of my work is focused on socio-hydrology, a new field we launched in 2012 out of a deep conviction that we needed to involve humans more fully in hydrologic research as active participants and not merely as objective observers. It was a risky move since we did not have exposure to social sciences. We also faced resistance and sometimes outright hostility from both the hydrology side and social science side. Yet, I am pleasantly surprised by the success we have achieved in the last 7 years, not only in terms of the research outcomes and publications, but in terms of growing the field and expanding the network of socio-hydrologists. Along the way we have learned a lot and contributed a lot to knowledge. There is the primeval or childlike exhilaration that comes when you are learning and discovering things for the first time, even (in my case) at the age of 65.

So it is not surprising that my proudest professional moment when I received the news that we had won the Prince Sultan Prize for Water. It was especially gratifying that we won the prize for launching the field of socio-hydrology. It was a pleasant surprise but was a recognition that we almost desperately needed in view of the risk we took to launch it. So I am truly grateful for this recognition.

What do you need to innovate?

To innovate one first needs natural curiosity, the ability to look deeply into things, not superficially. It needs creativity – creativity is innate (one is born with it), but creativity can be created through hard work if there is curiosity. Creativity also needs courage – to think differently from the crowd, and to pursue one’s convictions against the odds. Creativity and innovation can thrive in a supporting environment. Even in a stifling environment where there is pressure to conform to a particular way, one can be creative or innovative if there is a leader or mentor who will take a chance on you when no one else does. So, once again, luck plays a role. My experience is that the kind of luck that happened to by chance, rather it is luck that I created for me that enable to be in the right place at the right time. As the saying goes, “luck favours the prepared mind”.

What do you think is poorly understood or unresolved within the area of sustainable water management and research? Why is this so? How do you believe space technologies add value?

Even as an engineer, hydrologist and water scientist, I have faced a lot of scientific challenges. But there is always an innate confidence, as scientific progress over the centuries has demonstrated, that we can overcome these challenges. This is certainly true in hydrology, which has advanced by leaps and bounds over the past 50 years. There is a lot of enthusiasm and confidence that the frontiers of hydrologic science is going to advance much more in the next 50 years.

Yet, when it comes to sustainable water management I am overwhelmed by the challenges ahead. Much of it centres on people, trying to understand people’s motivations, to predict their future behaviour, and to plan anything in the future that will impact and be impacted by people. The water crisis that we have around the world may be a crisis of science, technology and management at some level, but above all the crisis is a governance crisis. It is about dealing with people, their aspirations, their values, their culture and above all their politics. As an engineer and hydrologist I had previously assumed the primacy and power of science and technology – I should have known better – I was unprepared for the importance of factoring people in water management decisions. Recognising this is the first step, there are enormous challenges to making progress.

I am not sure of space technologies, if one means remote sensing etc. However, space-age technologies can certainly help in dealing better with people and their aspirations. There is enormous potential for the use of social media, modern communication tools, spatial visualization to better integrate human involvement and decision-making in modern water planning and management decisions compared to traditional social science methods.

What do you see as the main conflicts (of analysis, priority, or value) among those who research water (and space technologies) and space or work with water (and space technologies)?

There may be many kinds of conflicts but the biggest conflict is one among the different disciplines. There is conflict between people who think of themselves as fundamental (Earth) scientists and engineers (or applied scientists) because of perceived superiority of fundamental science. There is conflict between natural scientists and engineering on the one hand and social scientists because of the perceived superiority of more quantitative approaches. There is conflict between scientists of all kinds and practitioners on the ground and the stakeholders, the beneficiaries of the research, because that kind of work is not valued and because it is messy. All of these conflicts are standing in the way of providing solutions to the problems that society faces. The only way to overcome these challenges is through raising the profile of water research and rewarding successful achievements in all of these areas, especially those cover the entire spectrum of research. The higher profile water research is gaining through awards such as the PSIPW and the Stockholm Water Prize, is definitely helping to turn the tide and I am confident that these artificial conflicts will be resolved within the next decade.

What is your favourite aggregate state of water?

I hope I understand this question. Growing up as a child, I was afraid of water. My parents prevented me from going anywhere near a water body, be it the ocean, river or even a lake. They were worried I would drown. I enjoy swimming at a beach, or wading into a lake or river, but these things don’t come naturally to me. I do not like snow or ice, because it is too cold for me – I have never skied in my life – the enjoyment of skiing does not overcome my fear of accident or worse. My enjoyment of water is only in its abstraction into mathematics or models. However, one thing I always enjoyed is rain. Growing up in Sri Lanka, during the monsoons, when it rains it pours with a lot of action and noise, lightning and thunder for hours on end. I never tire of watching the rain, and going out and getting soaked in the rain. I still remember those days – rain where I now live is not so interesting. It is a kind of matter of fact – not so exciting to watch.