Water Research

Q&A with the marine biologist guiding Elsevier’s water journals

Dr. Christiane Barranguet talks about trends in water research, misconceptions about sustainability – and her own trick for getting people to be water-conscious

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Every year in early September, Stockholm turns into the world's water capital. It becomes a meeting point for researchers; representatives from industry, education and NGOs; policymakers, development workers, journalists, world leaders and the public – all sharing the same goal: how to transform the pressing water challenges into opportunities for sustainable development.  

Hosted and organized by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) since 1991, World Water Week provides a forum for the exchange of views, experiences and practices between the scientific, business, policy and civic communities.

The theme of this year's conference is "water and energy." Among the presenters is Dr. Christiane Barranguet, Executive Publisher for Elsevier's water journals, who gave a presentation about the latest research and publishing trends and collaboration patterns in the water-energy nexus, including article and citation analyses.

Prior to the conference, Dr. Barranguet answered some interesting water questions for Elsevier Connect.

Christiane Barranguet, PhD

Christiane Barranguet, PhDAs a marine biologist, Dr. Christiane Barranguet worked on large ecological projects relating to marine microalgae, authoring more than 30 scientific papers in aquatic sciences.

Now, as Executive Publisher for Elsevier's water and biological resources journal portfolio, Dr. Barranguet helps shape research publication policies around water research management and biological resources. She provides insights on global trends in water research and funding, formulating recommendations on how can research and information help organizations and society address the global water challenges. She is based in Elsevier's headquarters in Amsterdam.

Dr. Barranguet – or should we say Dr. Water – when and why did your passion for this vital fluid substance develop?

Growing up in a little port town in Uruguay facing the largest estuary in the world, Rio de la Plata, I spent most of my childhood, quite literally, looking at  … water. This for sure left a mark on me as a person. This, and the fact that, as is the case for most of my country fellows, living in close contact with clean sandy beaches, largely unspoiled vegetation and plentiful fishing opportunities, I learned to treasure the gift of clean water and a natural environment very early on in life.

Later on, I studied marine biology and worked on large ecological projects relating to marine microalgae, so my focus then was more on the biology than the water. However, since 2009, largely through my acquired journal portfolio at Elsevier, I became involved with (fresh) water from an engineering and technological perspective. It's a thriving area of science, one which holds deep societal impact and has the potential of improving the quality of life of millions of people. I find this fascinating.

Elsevier publishes 26 percent of the world's scientific literature in the field of water resources – this is a vast amount of information. How do you as a publisher make sure this research reaches the people who "need to know"? Who are these people?

First of all, it must be noted that water research has over the years become increasingly interdisciplinary in its scope. Nowadays we see disciplines such as engineering, soil science, geology and meteorology integrated with social sciences, economics, environmental sociology, psychology, epidemiology, behavioral science and marketing – and all may cover elements of water research. This trend has immensely increased the research output related to water.

Traditionally, our journals' authors and readers were part of one and the same group: scientists and researchers: people within academia. As the field of water research broadened and became increasing multidisciplinary in scope, and the fact that water was labelled as a key 21st-century challenge by the OECD (in its report OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction), the types of people producing and seeking information on water expanded too. These people include policy makers, industry, corporation and education professionals, administrators, politicians and the general public. They all want to know what role they can plan to help preserve water for next generations.

To reach all these people, we have widened the aquatic sciences portfolio at Elsevier to cover a range of additional activities alongside publishing research papers. Our core remains disseminating top quality scientific and technical content, but we now also use different formats of sharing the content. Examples include conferences, online webinars connecting research and industry, providing data for educational modules, and many more.

In an interview in The Scientist earlier this year, summarizing "the global water crisis" you said: "There is enough fresh water on the planet to ensure access to clean water for everyone, but it is distributed unevenly and too much of it is wasted, polluted, or unsustainably managed." Can you further explain this?

There is enough water for everybody at a global scale, if wisely allocated, treated and recycled. However, it has been estimated that if the entire human population would use as much water as Europe and North America currently do, the world would need 3.5 times the total available global reserves.

Sustainability of water quality and access to sanitation are global priorities, yet local conditions — climate, precipitation, agricultural needs and industrial practices — are very different across regions. Additionally, some parts of the globe suffer from extreme floods, while others deal with massive droughts and depleted water reserves and aquifers (underground natural water reservoirs).

Water reuse and recycling systems can be well implemented in some cities, but efficient organization around these water-sustaining initiatives can be lacking in others. In some developing countries, up to 90 percent of wastewater flows untreated, directly into rivers, lakes and highly productive coastal zones, threatening health, food security and access to safe drinking and bathing water. Since the flow of water respects no boundaries, thinking and implementing solutions to secure water resources for future generations similarly should not be limited by boundaries. Effective international, cross-border collaboration is key.

What are some of the misconceptions about water resources and sustainability?

What is a Water Footprint Assessment?

The Water Footprint of a product is the volume of freshwater appropriated to produce the product, taking into account the volumes of water consumed and polluted in the different steps of the supply chain. Water Footprints can also be calculated at an individual or country level.  

Source: Water Footprint Network

Many people do not realize that most of the global water supply is used for agricultural practices —about 70 percent. This was traditionally not taken into consideration when calculating Water Footprint Assessments (see breakout box).  Also, as food gets traded internationally, we are in fact transporting massive amounts of water across borders "undercover" – something many people often don't think about either. Another common misinterpretation lies around causes of death by water-related disease. These are often the result of lack of appropriate sanitation rather than access to clean drinking water. That is why in many UN campaigns focusing on clean drinking water go hand in hand with providing sanitation facilities. (See "The UN Deputy Secretary General writes about why toilets matter" in Elsevier Connect.) 

With regard to impact in water research, which country or countries are leading? And which may surprise us in the future?

Countries leading in terms of absolute number of papers published in 2013, according to Scopus data, are China, the United States, India and Spain. In terms of research impact (citations per paper), countries leading in water research publications are Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the UK, the US, Belgium and Israel.

Also interesting to mention is that, on a practical level, many countries are applying creative solutions to face the water crisis. Good examples of water reuse are found in countries in the Middle East. One of the forefront players for desalination is Australia, but also some great examples of sustainable water use are found in Norway and Sweden – countries that we do not normally associate with water scarcity.

In which ways are you a responsible, water-conscious person yourself?

At home, we drink tap water and use energy- and water-saving devices. But I think mostly my involvement is in talking to my daughter and her friends about how essential water is and how scarce it is, so creating awareness. It is difficult for children (and for many adults too) – who often perceive clean water as an endless resource and sanitation as a given facility – to give it the adequate value and appreciation it deserves, and realize the consequences of irresponsible waste.

Water is also used as an alternative source of creating energy. Which is your personal favorite water-induced energy system? Where is it used, and what is unique about it?

That would be energy production by the microbial fuel cells, which is capable of directly generating energy from wastewater. Its application is still mostly experimental, and there is debate about the technical and economic viability of this technology on a larger scale and in real-world applications. But initial pilots of this new technology are very promising.

So we can end with a splash, what would be your call to the public on the topic of water?

To learn more about water, but mostly – and more importantly – enjoy water in its many forms, and share that joy with younger generations. Through a positive association, it becomes more natural to appreciate and remember water's significance and its value to us and to nature. Responsible water use by all can only be achieved by this awareness and by understanding the cycle: Where does the water I use comes from, where does it go, how can it be reused and preserved?

Related Resources

  • For almost 60 years, Elsevier has been a leading publisher in the field of Aquatic Sciences, including publishing society journals, book series, and a range of major reference works. For an overview of available journals and other resources in the field, visit Elsevier's Aquatic Sciences page and the journal pages for Aquatic Sciences.
  • The Reed Elsevier Environmental Challenge was launched in 2011 to contribute to the Water for Life Decade, established by the UN General Assembly between 2005 and 2015, in order to reduce by half the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. It is an annual challenge and aims to support initiatives that develop innovative solutions to improve sustainable access to safe water and sanitation across the globe.  Read about this year's winners in Elsevier Connect.

Water research: what does Elsevier do?

  • >5000 published articles on water
  • >9000 published articles in aquatic sciences
  • 46 journals publishing water-related research
  • >500 editors and associate editors and board members in aquatic sciences
  • Annual sponsor of World Water Week
  • Part of the annual Reed Elsevier Environmental Challenge organizing committee


Elsevier Connect Contributor

Sacha BoucheriePress Officer Sacha Boucherie works closely with Elsevier's journal publishers, editors and authors at one end and with science journalists and reporters at the other end with the aim of spotlighting and promoting interesting, topical research articles. She is based in Elsevier's Amsterdam headquarters.

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