Interview with Marisa Escobar, Water program Director at Stockholm Environment Institute, US and the IAHR Opening Keynote Speaker at the 38th IAHR Congress in Panama (1-6 September 2019)
Interviewed by David Ferras, IHE-Delft, the Netherlands, NewsFlash World  Editor

How did your interest in Water Science start?

During my bachelor studies in civil engineering I was taught the basics of water management in urban and constructed landscapes. By then, I also became curious about what happens to water before and after human use. I connected this idea with Paramo ecosystems, which represent an important freshwater source in Colombia. My interest in water science consists therefore of a mix of both, my roots in Colombian mountains and my training as a civil engineer.

As scientist in the Energy-Water-Food nexus, what’s your bet in the related SDG’s? Do you feel optimistic?

I am by nature an optimist, and I have good reasons to stay optimistic; that comes from the great science we are advancing and the engagement with young professionals. However, we need to act, if there’s a will there's a way, and it must be global. Most of the required actions are simple but urgent, they are based on equity, current technology and scientific advancement, and they must target the decision makers that will make it possible.

What is the achievement you feel most proud of during your career?

Last year SEI opened a Latin-American office in Bogotá and our Water Program Lead from SEI US was selected to be the Latin-American office Director. When the SEI US Water Program Lead, based in California, became vacant they started a recruitment and selection process and they asked me to join the candidates pool. It was a difficult decision for me as I am very conscious of balancing work and life. At that moment I realized I might lose a good opportunity, not only for myself, but also to lead the way for people, especially women, that have been at the crossroads between career and family. It was a difficult decision but thanks to the family support I can say now I feel proud to have accepted the challenge. At the end of the selection process I got the position as Water Program Director at SEI US.

As a promoter of the WEAP community, can you tell us a bit about it? Size, distribution, profiles?
We have been developing WEAP for the last two decades, currently there are 33000 WEAP users around the globe in approximately 186 countries. Licenses are distributed free in low income countries and only companies that make profit are charged for a license. All the facts and figures can be seen in this link . We give WEAP workshops in the context of capacity development projects and our future aim is to foster a self-standing community capable of supporting water decision making and organizing international conferences and seminars. We are a small team of 12 people in the US, and around 15 more in other SEI offices in Latin America, Asia and Africa, so we need to be strategic in our efforts. The new office in Bogota will definitely strengthen the support for WEAP development. We advocate for free and open access software, in a way that we can guide direction in which the WEAP tool is being developed in response to the WEAP community needs.

Glacier retreat, tragedy or opportunity?

Honestly, I do believe it’s a tragedy. Locally we are seeing the effects of a series of events over which globally we don’t have any control. Obviously, like in any crisis, opportunities emerge. Glaciers are large freshwater reservoirs; in a few years' time many will retreat and disappear. New infrastructure is required to replace these natural water reservoirs. In La Paz El Alto (Bolivia) this is already happening, while in the Cordillera Real reservoirs are being built to replace the natural function of glaciers which are rapidly retreating. Of course, this new infrastructure brings also the opportunity for hydropower generation. Moreover, existing hydropower plants constructed close to glaciers are already using the advantage of higher flow rates provided by the additional ice melt. Also, there are opportunities for research, as the glaciers retreat evidence of their geological history may be unhindered. Finally, tourism may also be an opportunity. Glacier retreat is maybe the most explicit indication of global warming and the so-called ‘climate change tourists may feel attracted to observe such phenomena. 

What do you think are the distinctive features of IAHR compared to other water research associations?

A few years ago, I went to the IAHR Ecohydraulics conference held in Norway and I got impressed of the mix between science and engineering. I believe the distinction between fundamental and applied science is not based on black or white criteria but rather on a grey scale. There are some research associations more inclined to fundamental research while there are some others whose vision focusses on the applied side of research. In case of IAHR, I see a good balance and compromise between both streams. As hydrologist, I developed my research career focused on the development of conceptual models that could have a practical application for river restoration, which is why I really appreciate the applied facet that IAHR provides. There is a bridge between science and decision making and in between there is technology. Associations like IAHR are crucial to provide the right framework for the development and implementation of real solutions to real world problems like the ones stated in the SDG’s.

What is your goal or vision as water professional? In other words, by the end of your career how would you like to be remembered? How can the IAHR community contribute to such goal?

I would like to be remembered as someone who contributed to a paradigm shift in society as there is still a lot to do in terms of gender equality. Thanks to the opportunities that I have searched for and gotten during my career I reached a position in which I can impact an area mainly dominated by men. At SEI there is high concern on gender equality and its relation to water problems. I feel I am in a position to highlight what appears to be invisible to many people in terms of inclusion and integration of gender in science and engineering.
I do believe water research associations give an important support to the fulfillment of such vision. The best example is the invitation to be one of the opening keynote speakers at the IAHR World Congress in Panamá. This reflects IAHR´s awareness of the issues I have depicted above, and I have received great assistance to be ready for a keynote speech that is targeted and brings a message of equality.

Marisa Escobar is the Water Program Director at SEI US office, based in Davis, California. Her work focuses on creating linkages between physical processes and socio-ecological systems.
She will be the IAHR Opening Keynote Speaker at the 38th IAHR Congress in Panama , 1-6 September 2019. See more information about Marisa Escobar: