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What we do

Research for development

Water scarcity is one of the most pressing issues facing humanity today. Sufficient water is necessary for adequate human health and is a prerequisite poverty reduction. Yet, water quality and availability are highly variable around the world. Typically, the most extreme shortages are experienced by those least able to cope with them; the most impoverished inhabitants of developing countries. Likewise, in developing countries, water for agriculture - or the water used to grow the food needed - consumes 70 to 90% of the total water use.

To have hope to meet the needs of a growing population - the global population set to double in the next 40 years - more food must be produced while using less water. There is no way around this. To address this, CPWF focuses on carrying out research for development at the intersection of poverty, water and food.

The CPWF does this by focusing research on this intersection, then linking relevant research outputs with the broader development community. This implies working in a way that emphasizes:

  • integrated and participatory research
  • strategic planning and decision-making across scales to support efficiency and effectiveness of outputs and outcomes delivery; and
  • a partnership approach to research design, implementation and uptake of outputs that involves key stakeholders, and builds capacity.


The heart of the research effort are research for development programs aimed at tackling key basin development challenges (BDC). BDC Programs have been established in Andes, Ganges, Limpopo, Mekong, Nile and the Volta Rivers. Each BDC Program is made up of 4-5 interlinked projects led by a coordination project and basin leader. Some of the key themes that the BDC programs are working on include:

  1. Improving food security and income generation by scaling out appropriate technical innovations that were tested in Phase 1
  2. Developing Multi-use systems to ensure that water is being used for different purposes by different user groups
  3. Improving how water is managed successively within a water basin or catchment
  4. River basin governance Social-ecological resilience

Based on experiences in Phase 1, CPWF is using “social-ecological resilience” as a guiding concept for Phase 2. Our wide experience from the 68 CPWF Phase 1 projects is that increased resilience is achieved through improved water productivity (‘more food with less water’) together with a range of other essential and interrelated components, of which some are constant and others, depending on the context, take on varying importance (i.e. institutional, ecological and socio-economic).

Social scientists refer to social resilience as the ability of groups or communities to cope with external stresses and disturbances as a result of social, political and environmental change. Natural scientists refer to ecological resilience, as a characteristic of sound ecosystems to maintain themselves in the face of disturbance, be this chronic or acute. Linking these objectives promotes opportunities for innovation that would otherwise not occur. Such opportunities help the CPWF to address its mandate of poverty alleviation leading to increased prosperity, dignity and resilience.

CPWF will develop approaches and methods to measure and understand resilience within its projects.

The diagram shows an emerging conceptual framework of how we work on resilience.


Topic working groups

Topic Working Groups (TWGs) are being established to take advantage of the enormous opportunities for learning across basin geographic and decision?making scales. For example, research in at least three basins will focus on rainwater management, rainwater harvesting, and small reservoirs. Key scientists from these basins will form a TWG to share experiences on rainwater management, critically appraise each others’ work, engage in cross?basin synthesis research, and receive further mentoring from world-class authorities on rainwater management. By this means, the focus and quality of research in basins can undergo continuous improvement

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Innovation and impact

An innovative feature of CPWF research program is its focus not only on carrying out cutting edge research but also on ensuring that the research carried out has meaning and use for development related purposes at different levels.

We understand innovation as both a social and technical process driven by people engaging in experiential learning cycles, the cumulative effect of which is the emergence and evolution of new ideas, institutions and technologies. We see innovation as fundamentally complex, adaptive, non-linear and open ended. Thus, research cannot be carried out in isolation but users and interests groups need to be involved from the outset.

For instances, farmers make sense of their experiments and decide to continue with the novelty they are testing, adapt it, or throw it away. They interact with others while they do so, and others influence their decision-making. From the countless repetitions of this so-called ‘learning selection’, carried out by large numbers of people linked together, innovation emerges. Nobody commands the process to happen although product champions attempt to nurture and shepherd it, and they are crucially important. What emerges is critically affected by people’s motivations and ability to participate, which in turn is affect by power, culture and norms. A crucial part of championing learning selection is fostering an “open-source” ethos where knowledge and experience is shared.

CPWFs guiding principles are based on these concepts and drive both our research and how the program operates.

Knowledge management

Knowledge management plays an important role in bridging research and impact and innovation approaches. Knowledge management at CPWF is defined as a process to “identify, create, represent, distribute and enable adoption of insights and experiences”.

Communication, information management and monitoring and evaluation are the main practices to achieve this and are designed to support the research effort through the impact pathways that have been developed for the program. In this sense, communication is not seen as just the production of materials but rather as a way to create positive change amongst the interest groups that CPWF intends to influence. Monitoring and evaluation supports the research and projects to learn as they go and be adaptive in their practices. Information management supports the two by providing the necessary information in the right format.