Conceptualising global water challenges: A transdisciplinary approach for understanding different discourses in sustainable development

Michael Brennan, Janeet Rondon-Sulbaran, Lyda Patricia Sabogal-Paz, A P Fernandez-Ibanez, Ane Galdos Balzategui

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Global challenges impact upon substantial numbers of people in different locations and inform policy at multiple levels under the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). An aspect of the SDGs framework is the stated inter-relationship between SDGs and local, regional and global partnerships for research and development. In response to dissatisfaction with existing approaches to addressing such complex problems the purpose of this paper is to propose a problem-language-context (PLC) model as a way of framing sustainable development challenges; and in so doing create a heuristic that allows challenges such as water security to be understood using a logically consistent framework. Such an approach builds on a growing transdisciplinary innovation literature that strives to generate knowledge that is problem-focused and inclusive of both scientific and societal stakeholders. The utility of the PLC model is then examined using a case study review carried out on a body of evidence - the United Nations World Water Development Reports (WWDRs) 2003–2019. The result of this review suggests that such problem framing can be of value in revealing the implicit (and sometimes contradictory) assumptions held by policy makers, practitioners and researchers. The main conclusion is that a transdisciplinary approach is one way of better understanding some of the conflicting viewpoints evident in discipline-based approaches to sustainable development, global water challenges and water security.

Original languageEnglish
Article number113361
JournalJournal of Environmental Management
Early online date7 Aug 2021
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 15 Nov 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) UK Research and Innovation (SAFEWATER; EPSRC Grant Reference EP/P032427/1 ).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors


  • SDGs
  • Sustainable development
  • Transdisciplinary innovation
  • Water


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  • Education for Sustainable Development

    Brennan, M. & Sabogal-Paz, L. P., 2023, (Published online) Handbook Transdisciplinary Learning. Philipp, T. & Schmohl, T. (eds.). Berlin

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