PhD Research Student

Project: Co-developing strategies to promote inclusive water governance in Malawi

This PhD is funded through the Hydro Nation Scholars Programme.

In Malawi, poor water governance has frequently been highlighted as the main cause of the population’s limited access to clean drinking water. Malawi’s water sector is plagued with continuing challenges in sector coordination, lack of accountability, controversy surrounding finance and regulation, compounded by donor driven responses to water access and management. Practitioners and policy-makers alike lack a real-world understanding of the type and value of information that flows between different actors in the water governance system, its availability across scales, and the drivers behind how that information is used, or not used, in developing policy, delivering programs, and in routine practice. From a systems perspective, there is a clear challenge in understanding how decisions are made, by whom, when, and for what reasons.

Through cross-scale analysis of social network structure, dynamics, and beliefs, this project aims to identify weak and dominant feedback loops in the water governance system of Malawi. The project will use co-design methodology to trial inclusive strategies for closing weak or missing feedback loops between actors across the system, and/or for reducing the impact of those loops that are harmfully dominant.

In addition to practical outcomes through co-design, results of the study will inform recommendations for changes to national policies, regulations, and guidelines in Malawi, and to better inform donor investments including those made by the Scottish Government.

More about me

I am interested in the interface between critical systems thinking, inclusive governance, sustainability, and public services. I am also interested in co-design methodology, different ways of knowing, and radically shifting the international development sector away from ‘command-and-control’ approaches.

Previously I have worked with various organisations on water governance and sustainability in Malawi over a span of a decade, including the “Governance for Sustainable Services” portfolio of Engineers Without Borders Canada, as well as the Water and Environmental Sanitation Network of Malawi, among others. In 2014, I founded the social venture WASH Catalysts to engage in sector advocacy, coordination, and knowledge exchange, and consulting to improve institutional sustainability of WASH initiatives using systems thinking approaches. I hold a BSc (Hons) in Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology from the University of Saskatchewan, Canada.


Twitter: @sydbyrns


Poster: 2020 IWA Young Water Professionals poster competition

Video: “Applying systems thinking approaches to overcome intractable governance challenges in the water sector of Malawi” (Presentation at the 6th International Symposium on Knowledge and Capacity for the Water Sector – May 27, 2020)