Hydrological Sciences

Hydrology and UNESCO: from science to practice and policy

Hydrology and UNESCO: from science to practice and policy

Water is the essence of the career of many researchers working in hydrology across the five systems of Earth (geosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere). When you step into a ‘career journey’ in hydrological sciences, you just love water and anything related to it. It can range from analysing water samples from headwater catchments in the tropical Andes to building a deep learning hydrological model for global streamflow forecasting. The universe of water-related research is broad and exciting; thanks to the role water takes in our lives but also to the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of hydrologists dedicated to their profession.

Hydrology practice and water-related policy are often shaped at governmental (national) level and beyond academia. The United Nations (UN) is the world’s largest intergovernmental organization with a substantial focus on water. In my previous blog post “United Nations 101 for Hydrologists” you can read about the UN and its global agenda connecting water and climate for sustainable development through UN-Water, the UN Decade on Water Action, and the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 “Clean Water and Sanitation”. Here, I will focus on the presence of hydrology in the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).


UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It seeks to build peace through international cooperation in education, sciences and culture. UNESCO’s programmes contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals defined in the 2030 Agenda, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015.

Did you know that the UNESCO Headquarters building, seen from the Eiffel Tower in the photo above, was designed in mid 1950s by the architect Marcel Breuer? (Photo source: UNESCO)

UNESCO Secretariat in Paris (France) functions as the executive branch, with 53 (field) offices around the world. Its expertise areas are education, natural sciences, ocean sciences, social and human sciences, culture, communication and information, Africa, and gender equality. An important line of UNESCO’s work is open science. The UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science, adopted by the General Conference at its 41st session (Nov 2021), sets an international standard for open science practice and policy.

The office of the Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences covers three divisions: Water Sciences, Ecological and Earth Sciences, and Science Policy and Capacity-Building. The Division of Water Sciences consists of the following sections: 1) Hydrological Systems, Climate Change and Adaptation, 2) Groundwater Sustainability and Water Cooperation, and 3) Capacity Development and Water Family Coordination. All these sections lead the efforts on advancing hydrology worldwide by fostering international collaboration across governments and with stakeholders in research, practice and policy.

Intergovernmental Hydrological Programme (IHP)

The Division of Water Sciences hosts the Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Hydrological Programme (IHP).

The Intergovernmental Hydrological Programme (IHP) was founded in 1975.

Founded in 1975, IHP is the only global intergovernmental cooperation programme of the UN system devoted to water research and management, and related education and capacity development. The IHP Council is the UNESCO’s governing body to address water challenges (check this video for more info on IHP’s governance.)

IHP is a 47 years-old agenda-setting hydrology programme. It is implemented in eight-year phases, which are shaped by a strategy decided by the IHP Intergovernmental Council. The strategic plans stimulate and encourage holistic hydrological research and knowledge generation. They also assist Member States in research and training activities.

IHP-IX (2022-2029): Science for a Water Secure World in a Changing Environment

The Strategic Plan for the ninth phase of IHP “Science for a Water Secure World in a Changing Environment” (IHP-IX, 2022–2029) was adopted during the Council’s 24th session in June 2021. IHP-IX has five priority areas that serve as a cooperation basis for the scientific community and water professionals:

  • Scientific research and innovation,
  • Water Education in the Fourth Industrial Revolution including Sustainability,
  • Bridging the data-knowledge gap,
  • Integrated water resources management under conditions of global change,
  • Water Governance based on science for mitigation, adaptation and resilience.

The ninth phase of IHP envisions supporting Member States in attaining water related goals and targets, such as the SDG 6, by strengthening scientific knowledge and data availability and its inclusion in the process of decision making.

IHP-IX will help build the opportunities and expand efforts, so Member States develop and gain access to data and information while also providing tools to further increase data sharing and knowledge transfer. To achieve this, transdisciplinary research is of crucial importance especially in the context of a complex and changing environment.

UNESCO Water Family

UNESCO’s IHP is committed to building knowledge, providing tools, methodologies, and approaches that help Member States to implement sustainable water resources management approaches and design better water policies. The UNESCO Water Family is instrumental in this endeavour. It comprises the Intergovernmental Hydrological Programme (IHP), its 172 National Committees, and 18 international initiatives (e.g., FRIEND-Water), the World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP), the so-called “Category 2 Centres” under the auspices of UNESCO, and water related UNESCO Chairs and UNITWIN Networks, which serve water-related research and capacity development, as well as science-policy interface.

The UNESCO Water Family operates as a global network. It works towards implementing the organization’s strategic goals through its 36 “Category 2 Centres”, such as  the International Groundwater Resources Assessment Centre (IGRAC), the International Centre for Water Hazard and Risk Management (ICHARM), the International Centre on Hydroinformatics for Integrated Water Resources Management (CIH), the Asia-Pacific Centre of Ecohydrology (APCE), and the Water Research Centre at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (WRC-KISR).

The Water Family is also composed by its 66 water Chairs. Across the globe, they build upon collaborations to advance in training, research and programme development in higher education on topics related to IHP.

Water Education

The UNESCO Water Family has several members that offers fully accredited MSc and PhD degrees. One of them is IHE Delft Institute for Water Education — a large international graduate water education facility. It contributes to interdisciplinary water research through six academic departments: Water Supply, Sanitation and Environmental Engineering; Water Governance; Land & Water Management; Water Resources and Ecosystems; Coastal & Urban Risk & Resilience; Hydroinformatics and Socio-Technical Innovation.

Furthermore, the United Nations University’s (UNU) has three institutes for collaborative research and education on water-related issues. The Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH, Canada), the Institute for Integrated Management of Material Fluxes and of Resources (UNU-FLORES, Germany), and the Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS, Japan). These institutes offer postgraduate degrees for policy-oriented research and specialized training for capacity development.

World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP)

UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP) is a coordination mechanism tasked with providing knowledge and tools on sustainable freshwater use and management, and promoting gender equality. It leads the production of the World Water Development Report (WWDR), the UN report for water managers and policy- and decision-makers. The 2022 edition of the report, titled “Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible” was launched last week on the World Water Day (22 March). The report addresses groundwater-related issues from the perspective of the three main water use sectors (agriculture, human settlements and industry), as well as its interactions with ecosystems and its relation with climate change. It highlights different regional perspectives and presents a number of response options concerning data and information, policy and planning, management and governance, as well as financing. The key messages from the report are summarized in this nice 3-minutes video.

The 2022 edition of the United Nations World Water Development Report, titled “Groundwater: Making the invisible visible”, describes the challenges and opportunities associated with the development, management and governance of groundwater across the world.


The cooperation and collaboration between the UNESCO and the International Association of Hydrological Sciences (IAHS) has been pivotal in engaging hydrology research and practice communities together. Research contributions of IAHS’s worldwide network of science (> 10, 000 members) through its 10 international commissions and working groups are influential in shaping the international hydrology agenda on understanding hydrological processes and water management issues. Additional means of mutual cooperation are:

  • UNESCO provides substantial support for IAHS events and co-publications;
  • UNESCO-IHP and IAHS have been organizing the Kovacs colloquium aiming at addressing scientific challenges in hydrology;
  • With the aim of promoting hydrological sciences, the two medals of the International Hydrology Prize (the Dooge and Volker Medals) are awarded annually by IAHS, together with UNESCO and WMO, to hydrologists who have made outstanding contributions to hydrological sciences.
EGU Hydrological Sciences and UNESCO

I can see several ways how the European Geoscience Union (EGU) and UNESCO can collaborate in the future. For example, EGU can host a special webinar on the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science where their policy experts can explain what it implies for geoscience researchers. Moreover, a longer term activity could be joining forces with the EGU Education and Outreach committees to promote geoscience education. Another collaboration opportunity can be developed by the EGU Policy Working Group to establish a joint research-policy agenda, especially on hydrology.

Does that make you want to join UNESCO or collaborate with them?

I hope this post was informative enough to inspire your work in the context of science for policy, research partnerships and interdisciplinary education. If that is the case, visit https://en.unesco.org/themes/water-security/hydrology to further explore the UNESCO Water Family.

Below you can find additional suggestions on how you can get involved with UNESCO’s hydrology agenda and activities – don’t hesitate to participate and expand your network and opportunities!


Edited by Maria-Helena Ramos

Nilay Dogulu is a keen enthusiast for science-informed operational hydrology. Her research interests deal mainly with the applications of data-driven modelling techniques in hydrology. In her PhD research, Nilay explored the use of clustering methods for understanding catchment similarity and improving runoff predictions in ungauged basins. Nilay has acted as the Early Career Scientist Representative for the European Geosciences Union (EGU) HS Division (2017-19) and the International Association of Hydrological Sciences (IAHS) (2018-2022).

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this very informative and inspiring Blog.

    Triangular cooperation of IAHS, UNECO-IHP and WMO can provide many capacities and potential for innovations and help to achieve the water related SDGs.

    We can find information about WMO hydrology section here:

    Recently, WMO has launched its action plan 2022-2030 for hydrology:

    About the UNESCO National Commissions:
    In each member country of UNESCO, there is a National Commission. National Commissions are important sources of information for UNESCO on national requirements and priorities in regard to education, science, culture and information. They contribute to national activities related to UNESCO’s program. Therefore, if you want to gain more information (such as UNESCO chairs, IHP committee, and UNESCO clubs) about UNESCO activities in your country, you may check the website of your National Commission.

    UNESCO-IHP also has had many initiatives and capacity building programs, which contain valuable information and case studies. Such as

    Webinar series on “climate resilient water management approaches”:

    Water Information Network System (IHP-WINS):

    And many other programs.


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