Is it easy to understand a hydrologist?

zrozumieć hydrologa

This text, about the language we use to talk about water, was born in my head for quite a long time and is the result of many conversations in very different circles. This will probably be one of the most personal articles I have written. My private opinion, not any linguistic analysis or the position of hydrologists. I am not a linguist and certainly cannot speak for all water experts. However, I am in a very unusual place for our group.

Professionally, I work in a bank. As the only hydrologist. So on a daily basis I function in an environment for which water topics are not intuitive, and the language used in water management is not the first way to describe the world. I, on the other hand, after more than a dozen years of working surrounded almost exclusively by water experts – hydrologists, hydrologists, hydrobiologists, limnologists, hydrogeologists – speak their language by default. So I asked myself whether what I was telling about water in the bank was understood. Is it easy to understand a hydrologist?

“About water” – in a special language

However, let’s start at the beginning. The first question that arises is whether we talk about water in a special language. It seems to be. Like any field, water management has developed a specific set of terms to describe phenomena, objects or processes. It is extremely important for professionals to express themselves precisely. For example, we talk about the catchment area, specifying the cross-section enclosing it, so that it is clear what space we mean.

The process of formation of specialized nomenclature, closely related to the development of water science, has been overlaid by legislation, which is governed by its own rules. Of particular importance was the transposition of the provisions of EU directives – the Water Framework Directive, the Floods Directive or the Wastewater Directive. These documents, not only written in legalese, were constructed in English and then translated into the languages of the member countries. The correctness and accuracy of translations of EU legislation is a topic for a separate article. Suffice it to say that new concepts relating to water management have emerged. For example, water bodies, heavily modified water bodies, environmental objectives, good ecological potential and many others. Some of them needed formal definitions to be understood from the beginning.

Another very specific feature of the way we talk about water is the use of a large number of abbreviations and acronyms. I didn’t realize how many such acronyms we use in water management until I was asked to write a very synthetic summary about water for a person completely unrelated to the industry. So I couldn’t use such typical phrases as jcwp, because they were a meaningless cluster of letters to the recipient. Things got even more interesting when it came to writing up key water planning documents. The list looked like this:

  • II aPGW,
  • aPZRP,
  • PPSS,
  • PPNW,
  • MRP and MZP,
  • WORP,
  • Nitrate program.

In planning, virtually every document carries an abbreviation. Long names cause us to operate more often with their acronyms rather than their full wording, such as. The PZRP (not to be confused with PZPR) is the “Basin Flood Risk Management Plan…”. PPNW has a similar lengthy development in the form of the “Water Shortage Program.” Even the name of the Water Framework Directive we all shorten to WFD, sometimes colloquially referred to as “framework.”

In conclusion, in my opinion, we talk about water and water management in a specific language. However, it seems to me that this is the case in every industry. Certainly my banking colleagues use economic jargon on a daily basis, which I am still learning.

Hydrological “bubble”

So is it easy for us hydrologists or water experts more broadly to understand? By ourselves, inside our “bubble” we usually understand each other very well. This is what we have been creating our language for decades (if not longer). When entering the water industry, it is important to learn it. To this day, I still recall my monitor at my first job at the regional water board, which I taped with sticky notes with key terms. Over time, they disappeared. Initially replaced by new ones, and then I no longer needed them. With experience, we become proficient in the use of industry jargon. It was the same with me. Over the past decade or so, I have learned to speak very professionally and expertly about water. But is it understandable?

The specialized language used in water management is neither simple nor obvious to the layperson. Like any professional jargon. Probably with this in mind, summaries in non-specialist language are created for virtually every water planning document. They are intended to facilitate reception of the document and public participation in its consultation. I had the opportunity to write several such non-specialist summaries.

For me, an expert with several years of industry experience, it was an incredible challenge. So much so that I asked friendly people, completely unrelated to the subject of water, to read and point out the incomprehensible passages. What was my surprise when the content, very simplified in my opinion, still contained many specialized and not commonly used terms. Similar comments were made by those working with us and involved in the communication and promotion of the project. Their perspective was quite different from ours, expertly. It was probably then, a few years ago, that the thought dawned on me that it was difficult for us water experts and experts to understand.

Locking ourselves in our water bubble, we forget that the outside world does not speak our jargon. What is obvious and understandable to us is not necessarily so to outsiders. I solidified this belief when I started working at the bank. For the past year, I have answered countless questions about hydrology or water management. I explain what disposable resources are, inviolable flow, how ecological status differs from chemical status, and why there is no ecological status for groundwater, but there is a quantitative one.

On the other hand, I participate in many discussions on the role of water management in the socio-economic development of Poland and Europe as a whole. The horizontal topic of water touches many areas and industries. However, since water specialists (including myself, although I’m trying hard to change that) speak a difficult language, using many abbreviations and acronyms, they are often poorly heard and not understood in such a discussion. In my opinion, this is where the highly underestimated role of water management comes from, among other things.

Our specialized jargon is very necessary for us to understand each other well. However, going beyond our water world, we should, in my opinion, simplify the messages. To speak loudly and clearly about things that seem extremely simple and obvious to us, sometimes in our environment repeatedly discussed on all sides and from all perspectives. We must, as experts, remember that we are communicating with people who last dealt with water issues at school and many years ago. It’s very difficult, I know from experience, but worth the effort.

Building broad public awareness of water is, like all education, one of the most important efforts to improve water quality and quantity. This is what virtually every planning document in water management shows. “Water Matters” has been pursuing this vision for a year now, publishing accessible texts on many aspects of water, but also more specialized ones for those interested in the science section.

Finally, one more thing: I think it’s worth creating a dictionary about water for non-specialists, the kind of place where all the intricacies about water are explained and all the abbreviations and names of documents are deciphered. It would be good to have one address where anyone interested could be referred. Soon “Water Matters” will gain such a compendium.

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