John Hoffmire: I just finished watching the documentary ‘Our Planet’ with David Attenborough. It has deepened my respect for anyone who has devoted their work to preserving our planet’s natural resources and making this world more equitable. That certainly includes you. Please tell me how you became a sustainability science expert and a trans-disciplinary research scholar.

Nidhi: I started out with a graduate degree from the Honors School, Punjab University. After completing a master’s degree from the Indian Council of Agriculture Research University, I joined the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), a research institute connected to the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing. While implementing a national level project called Biodiversity Characterization at Landscape Level’, a joint initiative of the Department of Space and Department of Science & Technology, Government of India, I completed my doctoral studies. I also studied international humanitarian law at the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research. The last bit is partially based on my deep interest in rights-based approaches to sustainable development. So that’s my educational track.

I am fortunate that my work track has given me the opportunity to associate with wide-ranging international institutions such as: The Asia Pacific Climate Center (APCC) of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)-South Korea; The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the research institutes of CGIAR (The Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research), The International Water Management Institute, and The World Fish Center. I also served as a senior scientist and a research coordinator at Leibniz Universität in Germany handling a bilateral research initiative. I’ve lived and worked in South Asia, South East Asia, Europe, North America, and Southern Africa.

John: You certainly have covered a lot of ground – in terms of geography, education, and disciplines. If you will, tell me where you are living now and about your current work.

Nidhi: Currently, I am a research fellow with The United Nations University Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNUCRIS) and Adjunct Professor, McMaster University, Canada, transitioning to work on cross-border water governance and science diplomacy for conflict migration in shared water systems. Until recently, I served as a Principal Researcher on water security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU INWEH) located in Ontario, Canada. I specialize in systems thinking and decision/learning support interfaces, and science-policy interfacing within the context of the water-energy-food nexus, trade-offs in inter-sectorial water allocations, solutions to complexities in trans boundary water management, trends, and impacts of water-driven migration.

During my role as an expert in the key Task Force of Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), we complied the Global Assessment Report that was launched in Paris in May 2019. While leading the Water Security and Nexus project, an initiative that supports decision-makers and the development community in applying the water security agenda, I could assess the capacity gaps and needs for the sector and developed a graduate level global training program on the topic.  Besides, my recent research has extensively focused on gender burdens in the water sector for the most vulnerable. This has taken me deeper into WASH issues –(water, sanitation and hygiene). And this has had led me into being involved with climate crisis driven human mobility, peace, and political security links to water governance in conflict settings. I also served as the capacity building coordinator for the institution and direct the youth-related programs aiming to build ‘Future Water Leaders’.

And finally, in my role as the Director of Water Without Borders, a collaborative graduate program in water, environment and health between the United Nations University and UNU-INWEH, and McMaster University, I initiated experiential learning initiatives for young professionals in several interdisciplinary domains such as land and water resource assessment, management and planning, Remote Sensing – GIS, systems approaches, and climate change adaptation.

John: I am learning that when I ask CRISP alums to tell me about what they are doing, the answer will always be that they are working on many things at the same time. Tell me about some of the current research you are working on.

Nidhi: Following my strong belief that sustainable development is achievable if we can join efforts to bridge the science-society interface, I’ve recently co-authored two articles that showcase the variety of challenges that COVID-19 has created for individuals living in informal settlements and refugee camps. Under such circumstances, the disproportionate gender burden and security repercussions are of critical importance, especially in migrant settlements that may be exposed to higher health hazards.

The articles point out existing solutions to respond to the threat of and risks associated with increased displacement – linking to climate and water risks and presenting an argument about how migration challenges can best be addressed when integrated within COVID-19 prevention and response measures, and when combined with assistance from other stakeholders to support the achievement of community resilience.

John: I know this is a hard question. But are you concerned that the world will simply not make the transitions that it needs to make in regard to water usage, water politics, gender problems, and healthcare?

Nidhi: One has to be optimistic when one does the type of work I do. Clearly, the challenges are vast. Many of the problems are rooted in issues that have centuries of history. There are few easy answers. If there were easy answers, they would have been implemented. So, we simply have to keep working, cooperating with one another, finding solutions, and implementing the answers. There is no other way

John: You have more than 200 scientific publications to your credit and you serve on the editorial and review committees of numerous international journals. Among your many other distinguished awards and achievements is the fact that you were one of 12 scholars chosen in 2011 for the Chevening Research Science and Innovation Leadership Programme (CRISP).

Nidhi: I was. Back then, the program what held at the Said Business School, at Oxford University. My cohort consisted of ambitious, mid-level leaders from a variety of industries and organizations and from all around India. The program was designed to inspire and reinforce leadership, management and strategy skills, along with cross-discipline and global collaboration. I will always appreciate my time as a CRISP fellow in Oxford for giving me the space to focus on and sharpen my professional goals, and for bolstering my confidence and the skill sets I needed to achieve my goals. It has also providing me with an ongoing network of colleagues who have been useful and supportive in the multidisciplinary work I’ve engaged in since then. But most of all, it was a ton of fun! We had so much joy experiencing all that Oxford has to offer: the dinners, field trips, cultural events, excursions, the course work and projects. It had all of the best parts of going back to school and up-skilling, without any of the hassles. I wish I could do it all over again.

John: Thank you, Nidhi. It’s been so inspiring to learn about the extraordinary work you have been doing since your time as a CRISP fellow. I’m sure we’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg of all of the work you have done and are doing

Nidhi: Thank you, John. It’s been my pleasure.

Nidhi Nagabhatla is Research Fellow with The United Nations University Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNUCRIS) and Adjunct Professor, McMaster University, Canada, and ex-Director (Water Without Borders), as well as Programme Officer at United Nations University. She is also an alum of the Chevening Research Science and Innovation Leadership Fellowship (CRISP) program at Oxford University (2011)

Interviewer: John Hoffmire is the Chairman of the Center on Business and Poverty, and Research Associate at the Oxford Centre for Mutual and Co-owned Business

For more information:  Water Without Borders