From gray infrastructure to nexus planning
Systems thinking is in the air. There’s a lot of talk about ‘breaking down silos’ and adopting more holistic, multidisciplinary approaches to complex, real-world problems. Certainly, Bunyod Holmatov’s journey to IWMI’s Sri Lanka office, where he is currently a Researcher in Data Analysis and Innovation in Water Management, gives the impression of a modern-day academic born to grapple with systems thinking.
As a liberal arts graduate, Bunyod may already have been accustomed to thinking across disciplines. While pursuing a postgraduate degree in environmental management and policy at the Yale School of Forestry, he was involved in the COP18 climate change negotiations in Qatar, which further impressed upon him the importance of working across institutions with stakeholders at all levels. His PhD at the University of Twente, funded by the EU’s MAGIC Nexus program, modelled the trade-offs across renewable energy technologies, water and land use, as well as emissions – a perfect example of nexus thinking. From here to the NEXUS Gains Initiative, where Bunyod is involved in research to boost water productivity and enhance integrated water storage management, seems like a natural progression.
With his experience of working on transdisciplinary issues, Bunyod understands that public stakeholders, particularly planners who already “have a lot on their plate”, are much more amenable to the systems approach advocated by NEXUS Gains if they are supplied with practical innovations and solutions that link their sector to other sectors and stakeholders. With NEXUS Gains, Bunyod’s focus is on creating an alternative future for the Aral Sea Basin, moving away from a reliance on ‘gray infrastructure’ towards solutions that integrate nature. After all, it was the ‘gray infrastructure’ of massive irrigation diversions in the Soviet era that led to the environmental and socioeconomic catastrophe that is the shrinking of the Aral Sea. Conventional planning may still be yoked to the idea that big problems demand big solutions, but Bunyod suggests that the 2020 collapse of the Sardoba Dam in Uzbekistan – only completed in 2017 – “was a wake-up call about the shortcomings of gray infrastructure, and we hope that planners will be more receptive to alternative approaches in the future”.
Bunyod and his team are currently conducting consultations with a wide range of stakeholders in both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as part of a political economy analysis on co-operation (or the lack of it) between the two countries on small transboundary tributaries. They plan to feed their findings into the newly established bilateral water commission of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. It is anticipated that opening these channels of communication will encourage nexus thinking to percolate to the highest levels of government, paving the way for alternative water storage projects such as those currently being reviewed by NEXUS Gains on a tributary of the Syr Darya in Uzbekistan.
It’s not just planners who have a lot going on, and who benefit from exposure to new approaches, of course. Bunyod is involved with NEXUS Gains across several work packages, but appreciates the opportunities that webinars and conference meetings provide to keep abreast of colleagues’ experience across river basins in Asia and Africa. One example is Muzna Alvi’s research on designing household surveys that account for women’s energy and water needs (“We would love to introduce the nuances highlighted by this research into our own,” enthuses Bunyod), as well as social learning interventions to strengthen local institutions around water and energy – both of which will be introduced to Uzbekistan as part of NEXUS Gains in the coming months. Bunyod himself has been engaged in running social learning interventions in European countries in the past, and observes that they led to a number of eureka moments. Given the history of planning in the Aral Sea region, Bunyod is hopeful that through NEXUS Gains he can help generate, across borders, institutions and communities of practice, new insights that will contribute to the transformation of water, energy, food and ecosystem management in the region.
Bunyod Holmatov (firstname.lastname@example.org) is based at the Sri Lanka office of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).
This feature is part of a series of interviews with early career researchers about their work as part of the NEXUS Gains Initiative. For more information, visit the NEXUS Gains webpage or contact email@example.com.