Water management professor Marko Keskinen studies the interaction of water and society

Water management is not only about environmental sustainability, but also about equity and equality.
Professori Marko Keskinen

Marko Keskinen (b. 1976), D.Sc. (Tech.), has been appointed as Associate Professor at the Department of Built Environment for the period 1 January 2020–31 December 2024. The field of the appointment is Water Resources Management and Policy.

Keskinen completed his doctorate in Aalto University in 2010 with doctoral dissertation focusing on integrated water resources management in the Mekong River Basin. He has several years of experience from water resources management and transboundary cooperation particularly in Southeast Asia, where he has been a visiting researcher at Cần Thơ University and an expert in several international research projects run e.g. by the Mekong River Commission, the M-POWER network and the Asian Development Bank.

This appointment marks Keskinen's return to Aalto University from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, where he worked as Senior Adviser since 2019, a position he also held in 2011–2012.  At the Ministry, Keskinen focused on water-related development cooperation projects in East Africa and Asia as well as on development policy within the EU and the United Nations. Keskinen also collaborated with the EU, the OSCE and Finnish organisations on water diplomacy.

Marko Keskinen is an experienced and well-liked teacher. He has worked as University Lecturer of water and environmental engineering since 2013 and has actively developed interactive, student-centered learning methods. He also serves as the Director of the Master's Programme in Water and Environmental Engineering. In 2015, he received the School of Engineering Award for Achievements in Teaching.

What do you study, and why?

I study the role that water has in the societies and their development, and related linkages to sustainability and security. This means that I for example look at the different approaches for water resources management, and study how politics and power influence sustainable use of water and related resources. My research covers several scales, from global to regional, national and local scales. And I do almost nothing alone, but in close collaboration with experts from different fields: water and sustainability are such broad themes that they do require multisectoral views. Ultimately, the aim of my research is to secure a sustainable and functioning society.

My enthusiasm for the water field started already over 20 years ago, when I spent a year as a volunteer in a small environmental NGO in South India. That year helped my to realise how critical water is for people, and how I could use my expertise to solve water-related problems. The inspiring teaching on water management at the Helsinki University of Technology greatly influenced my choice as well. Later, professor Olli Varis was key person for defining the scope for my doctoral research.

What have been the highlights of your career thus far?

The years working as an expert in the Mekong River Basin have been very important for my career. During those years I learned how a vast transboundary river system is actually managed and how hydropower projects are implemented. I learned that the knowledge gained from impact assessment and models are not enough, but one has to also take into account the intricate power relations and the diverse interests of the different actors involved.

In my doctoral dissertation, I focused on the management of the Mekong River and related Tônlê Sap Lake in Cambodia, looking at the integrated approaches for water management and impact assessment. The study was among the first ones to take such a comprehensive view on the connections between Tônlê Sap's flood pulse and the local livelihoods, and it also influenced the views of the Cambodian government on the area. My research thus combined engineering with a broader societal context, focusing on the interconnections between water, food and energy. This also mean that I did everything as a part of a inspiring, multidisciplinary team.

I have continued to work with these themes since then, the latest example being the strategic research project Winland, which I led. We studied the energy, food and water security in the context of comprehensive security in Finland as well as these sectors’ linkages to sustainability. We actively aimed for multi-, inter- and even transdisciplinary research, and therefore connected our research to topical planning and decision-making processes. Winland project was another major highlight and learning experience for me.

At the Foreign Ministry, you promoted water diplomacy – what does it mean?

Water diplomacy aims to reduce water-related tensions by connecting water expertise with diplomacy and peace mediation. Working at the Foreign Ministry reminded how important water is for both development policy and for foreign and security policy. The European Union has recognised this as well, and is actively promoting water diplomacy in its own foreign policy.

Finland is well-known for its role on promoting transboundary water cooperation. Finland has initiated both UN Conventions on transboundary waters, and supports sustainable and equitable cooperation in various regions. Our cooperation with neighbouring countries is also well-functioning, and for example our transboundary cooperation with Russia has been assessed as one of the best in the world.

Water is often seen of a source of conflict, and water can indeed cause tensions particularly in rapidly developing transboundary river basins. On the other hand, there are also examples where countries have continued water cooperation even at the times of conflict.

Overall, my time at the Foreign Ministry and the Mekong River Commission have reminded me how any major decision on water is always context dependent, and linked to existing power relations. It also means that a solution that seems the most feasible in theory may actually not work in practice: this highlights the need for close collaboration between scientists, decision-makers and stakeholders.

What are the key water-related challenges at the moment?

The world is not on a sustainable path in terms of our use of natural resources. Our current development remains too strongly based on the exploitation and overuse of natural resources, which then causes complex symptoms such as growing water scarcity, environmental degradation and climate change. This is our societies’ fundamental challenge that our generation has to solve.

We should look for sustainable ways of using water. When there is not enough water, the first to suffer are usually the most vulnerable groups.  Water management is therefore not only about environmental sustainability, but also about equity and equality.

Here in Finland, however, water management is at a very good level. We often take a systemic view on water, work across sectoral boundaries and have a wealth of technological expertise. These all are issues that we could share with other countries.

What do you expect from the future?

This professorship is my dream job, as it allows me to combine research, teaching and societal interaction on water and sustainability. I eagerly look forward to working with my wonderful colleagues here at Aalto. The Water and Environmental Engineering Research Group provides an inspiring, world-class working environment, and we have an excellent Master’s Programme. We also work with several partners beyond Aalto, and I hope to continue and strengthen that collaboration as well.

My research is practice-orientated, and connects therefore to different planning and policy processes. I personally see that science can serve as both map and compass for our society. It is important that we are able to show how things are and where we currently are, as if drawing a map. Yet, in order to make progess, we should also provide a direction where to go from here, together.

Why should one choose to study water and environmental engineering?

Our graduates solve problems that are both interesting and critical for society: our goal is to ensure a sustainable and functioning society. Here at Aalto, we see that it requires expertise that combines strong problem-solving skills with an understanding of the society and its diversity.

Our field is highly diverse and we work together with experts across sectors. There is a strong demand for our graduates in companies, the public sector and in research institutions, and our career prospects are therefore good and varied.

Our Master's programme is student-centred, allowing for differing study paths. We are actively developing our programme in collaboration with both students and stakeholders. So, welcome aboard!

What would you never give up?

Cycling to work throughout the year! I am lucky to have the best commuting route in Helsinki, cycling from Lauttasaari to Otaniemi through several islands.
Cycling calms the mind and helps to put things into a perspective.

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