Hydrological Sciences

Interdisciplinary research within hydrology

Interdisciplinary research within hydrology

Interdisciplinary research within hydrology has become a major task for hydrologists. But what are the main advantages and challenges reflecting to break the academic silos? 

What is interdisciplinary water research?

Interdisciplinary research activities within human-water research have increased in recent years, not only in terms of research proposals and requests from funding agencies (such as the European Horizon Program) but also in terms of the number of publications, PhDs and master’s theses. 

Additionally, attention has been increased by guidelines and guiding principles that encourage and lead interdisciplinary water research. Rangecroft et al. (2021), for example, showed the theoretical complexity of interdisciplinary research in the field of hydrology and provided practical experiences about the challenges and advantages of using an interdisciplinary perspective.

But what is interdisciplinary in water research, exactly? 

The idea behind this is to break out of the current disciplinary silo. Most research studies focus on one specific discipline, which frames the research questions, selects the method to conduct the research and uses theoretical concepts to help understand the results. 

An interdisciplinary approach, breaks out of the current discipline to include different theoretical models, methods, data and research questions. Usually, interdisciplinary research projects combine social and natural science. Some studies also combine humanities, art-based research, etc., with natural science methods. 

The core advantage is to reach new perspectives in our complex world.

Challenges within interdisciplinary research projects

Interdisciplinary research projects also include a wide range of challenges. Some common ones are the lack of common language between disciplines, different datasets (semi-structured interviews, surveys, numerical modeling from economics or hydrological studies), and different theoretical concepts. 

These differences can be both an advantage and disadvantage. While they bring different perspectives, they also require more time and openness by the researcher and skills to understand each other’s disciplinary side. 

As these are hard tasks and skills, interdisciplinary research projects are often conducted only between disciplines that use similar datasets, such as hydrologists and economists (Barthel & Seidl 2017).

Another approach is the use of overly simplistic perspectives from other disciplines, such as binary yes/no responses from surveys (like risk perception), which are used as an important input parameter within system dynamics modeling approaches for water resource management. Here, social science is used for overly simplistic understandings of the complexity of human behavior and can create limited explanations of, for example, the individual response to a flood or drought event.

Integration of local and Indigenous knowledge into water research

A key – and often neglected – challenge is the position of the researcher within the research process, especially the unequal power distribution to assess and interpret research output. Many researchers are hatched or trained at western universities, which leads to a certain mindset. 

Hydrological data, for example, from monitoring stations, need certain standardized datasets; if the specific datasets are not provided by national, regional or local authorities, this often means that these areas show no data. However, the problem is that this standard is often defined by Western universities and often excludes local qualitative knowledge from individuals and communities across the globe. 

Therefore, Indigenous knowledge is often excluded from ‘classical’ numerical hydrological models, which is a clear limitation to understanding many impacts across the globe. Nevertheless, there are research studies (such as Ragnecroft et al. (2018)) who have tried to integrate narratives about changes in our water system into hydrological modeling outcomes, which is a fantastic step forward.

Next step: transdisciplinary water research

Interdisciplinary water research is already challenging, but to better address societal needs and to integrate local knowledge, a transdisciplinary research framework is needed. 

Transdisciplinary research should focus on the integration of nonscientists within projects to define common aims, methods and interests. The key aim is to find a common language between scientists and nonscientists to communicate what happens within the project. 

A core aspect is to establish and implement a way forward to provide a participatory process for stakeholder engagement, including transdisciplinary knowledge production in terms of reports, a lack of written documents and scientific publications. 

The interaction with nonacademic partners can be fruitful in developing an understanding of the problem as well as providing common solutions, which are in line with the holistic understanding of water under the Panta Rhei Research Initiative of the IAHS.


Barthel, R. and Seidl, R., 2017. Interdisciplinary collaboration between natural and social sciences – status and trends exemplified in groundwater research. PLoS ONE, 12(1), e0170754. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0170754.

Rangecroft, S., Rohse, M., Banks, E.W., Day, R., Di Baldassarre, G., Frommen, T., Hayshi, Y., Höllermann, B., Lebek, K., Mondino, E., Rusca, M., Wens, M., Van Loon, A.F., 2021. Guiding principles for hydrologists conducting interdisciplinary research and fieldwork with participants. Hydrological Sciences Journal, 65(S2), 214–225. doi: 10.1080/02626667.2020.1852241.

Edited by Christina Orieschnig

Thomas Thaler is Senior Scientist at the Institute of Landscape Planning at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences based in Vienna (Austria). His research focuses on water policy, such as flood and drought risk management, governance and science-policy interface.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks a lot for this timely Blog Post. I just want to notify you that IAHS is active with a new decade which is more in line with the needs expressed in the last two sections: Science for Solutions decade: HELPING – Hydrology Engaging Local People IN one Global world.

    Specifically, the third theme proposed is very in line: https://iahs.info/Initiatives/Topic-for-the-Next-IAHS-decade/helping-working-groups/. The possibility of joining Working Groups is still open.


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