Towards a reflexive approach: connecting critical research on water modelling

On the 19th and 20th of January an interdisciplinary group of 40 researchers gathered online to exchange experiences in researching and developing models to study water distributions and governance. The organisers, Rossella Alba and Rozemarijn ter Horst, tell that the event was an opportunity to present on-going research projects and gauge interest for future collaboration. More activities will follow. Stay tuned!

Water Art (Peggy2012CREATIVELENZ)

When drinking a glass of water or walking on the banks of a river, one hardly thinks about numerical models, algorithms and lines of codes. And yet, models are widely used in the management, governance and study of water flows. They vary from Agent-Based Models, Bayesian Belief Networks but also 3D models and serve different purposes, from simulating and mimicking a known-situation, for instance by simulating water distributions, to exploring unknown situations through scenario-building. Some are used to support existing paradigms while others believe they are instrumental in fostering progressive water governance.

In short, there is a multitude of models and usages. However, there are relatively few studies interrogating the roles of models in water management and governance. Encouraged by increased engagement between natural and social scientists in the water sector, and as a follow up of the socio-hydrology conference held in Delft in 2021 we gathered with an interdisciplinary group of early career and senior researchers. The event was co-organized by the Hydrology and Society group at IRI-THESys, Humboldt University of Berlin and the Water Resources Management Group of Wageningen University.In the workshop, we shared experiences and examples of critical, creative and reflexive engagement with modelling water use and governance.

The first day of the workshop was focused on ‘opening the black box’ of numerical modelling. Presentations covered issues related with the process of modelmaking including computer code development and automatization processes. Participants shared reflections on how specific ways of understanding relations between water and society are embedded and fostered through numerical models. This connects with the idea that a model can contribute to making certain processes or problems visible or invisible, and certain (water) management options seemingly more favorable than others. In the workshop, participants shared interesting examples of these dynamics. For instance, in Mexico, a model was developed to inform policies on the filling of a reservoir, based on the question of how deep the reservoir should be to allow for inter-basin transfers. None of the scenarios that were modelled provided an option in which a village in the intended reservoir, Temacapulín, could be saved from inundation. The different scenarios were questioned by IHE Delft researchers (Godinez-Madrigal, Van Cauwenbergh & van der Zaag, 2019; 2020). The team modelled alternative scenarios with the villagers, and through this engagement were able to raise questions about the intended inter-basin transfers with the decision makers. Ultimately, the village was not flooded.

During the second day, participants shared their experiences in developing models through interdisciplinary scientific collaborations. One such collaboration was between hydrologists, climatologists, and politic-ecology scholars to explore if critical modelling, based on an integral approach to Nature-Society would result in different ideas about how future hydroclimatic extremes could possibly impact societies.

The presentations and discussions emphasized that interdisciplinary cooperation requires time, trust, and curiosity to engage with different ways of seeing the world and understanding science, and showed how models can be useful tools to bring natural and social sciences together. The workshop was not complete without discussing participatory modelling. A highlight we note is a project that engages with theatre and science to discuss the possible impacts of climate change and strategies to engage with this.

The presentations confirmed that models can be many different things. They can be powerful tools to coordinate divergent datasets, to imagine and predict possible futures. They can be communication tools, as well as tools that help to think collaboratively. Models can be tools to legitimize decisions, world-making as well as truth-making machines. Although all these models are different, and their aims vary, they all have a ‘social life’: their development and application is shaped by modelers’ choices, by the technologies used for modelling (i.e. codes, computing power), by requests and expectations of funders or of stakeholders involved in the modelling (i.e. water users). These choices and influences matter, and this calls for a reflexive approach as to why, how, and for what purposes models are developed and used by whom.

All the participants – modelers and non-modelers alike – underlined the need for further collaboration and exchange across social and natural sciences in relations to modelling practices and use in water research and policy making. There was both a wish to understand the power of models, perhaps as a critique, and a wish to engage with modelling from a constructive perspective to interrogate how numerical models may help to foster transformative pathways towards more just and equitable water distributions. How can the impacts of (the use) of models be further researched? How could limitations and possibly unwanted side-effects of modelling be identified? What are the impacts of specific modelling practices on different groups of people and the environment? To this end, several suggestions were put forward including the need to foster a safe space for interdisciplinary exchanges and joint learning while being mindful of differences in vocabulary, as well as for remaining curious to explore fundamental epistemological and ontological questions related with modelling water(s).

There are numerous societal and scientific questions that remain still to be explored related to models, water and society. The discussions and reflections will continue, in the form of discussion groups, publications, and explorations to develop collaborative interdisciplinary projects in the near future. In case you are interested to join this group and the follow up activities, please reach out to the organisers: Rozemarijn ter Horst ( and Rossella Alba (

The event was co-organized by the Hydrology and Society group at IRI-THESys, Humboldt University of Berlin and the Water Resources Management Group of Wageningen University.

You can find the full programme by clicking this link. In case there are any questions on specific presentations, please feel free to reach out to the presenter directly or via the organisers.


Godinez-Madrigal, J., Van Cauwenbergh, N., & van der Zaag, P. (2019). Production of competing water knowledge in the face of water crises: Revisiting the IWRM success story of the Lerma-Chapala Basin, Mexico. Geoforum, 103, 3-15.

Godinez-Madrigal, J., Van Cauwenbergh, N., & van der Zaag, P. (2020). Unraveling intractable water conflicts: the entanglement of science and politics in decision-making on large hydraulic infrastructure. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 24(10), 4903-4921.

Cite this blog post
rossellaalba (2022, February 25). Towards a reflexive approach: connecting critical research on water modelling. FLOWs. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from

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