We know less about one of world's most pressing challenges today than we did 10 years ago. It's no secret that water - or the lack thereof - will be one of the defining issues of the 21st century. And yet, the United Nations World Water Report, in 2009, stated that when it comes to water, "less is known with each passing decade."
The World Economic Forum recently named the water supply crises as one of the top risks facing the planet - edging out issues like terrorism and systemic financial failure. Water risks permeate almost every aspect of global society. We got a taste last year with crops scorched by drought, shipping lanes threatened and energy plants shut down by low water levels, and coastlines devastated by flooding. Exacerbated by climate change and population growth, such crises will become more common and costly. Yet, the world largely lacks the data we need to monitor, understand, and respond to these water challenges. We are flying blind when it comes to global water issues.
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the first World Water Day, an international celebration designed to draw attention to the importance of freshwater resources. However, for a large and growing proportion of the world’s population, every day is a World Water Day. Difficult, complex water challenges including drought, groundwater depletion, pollution, and clean drinking water availability are growing in urgency and seriousness all around the world. Some even argue that we should boycott World Water Day – that our water problems are too serious to try and confine to a single day.
Although it’s true that we must keep water in mind during the other 364 days of the year, World Water Day can be useful. It helps raise awareness and serves as an annual reminder of the water problems we must collectively solve. Plus, picking a single theme – this year’s is cooperation – helps break down a very complex topic into more accessible, comprehensible pieces.
In keeping with the theme of helping make complex issues more approachable and understandable, WRI is marking this year’s World Water Day by launching the first in a new series of videos we’re calling “What’s the Big Idea?” These brief videos will feature WRI staff members explaining some of the complex, global challenges we are working to understand and solve. Our first “What’s the Big Idea?” video explains the concept of water risk and the array of challenges it poses. We also highlight a potential solution: WRI’s Aqueduct mapping tool, which helps companies, investors, governments, and others better understand and manage their water risks.
Our future is inextricably linked to forests. The social and economic benefits they provide are essential to realizing a sustainable century. A key litmus test of our commitment to this future is our response to a growing, global threat: illegal logging and the criminal timber trade.
Forests are a vital source of biodiversity and livelihoods. More than 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods, including 60 million indigenous people who are wholly dependent on forests. They are also natural carbon storage systems and key allies in combating climate change. They are vast, nature-based water utilities assisting in the storage and release of freshwater to lakes and river networks.
While deforestation is slowing in some places – most notably Brazil – it still remains far too high. The loss of forests is responsible for up to 17 percent of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions, 50 percent more than that from ships, aviation and land transport combined.
In January, Brian Richter, director of freshwater strategies at The Nature Conservancy, spelled out four water resolutions through a thought-provoking series of blog posts. One of those resolutions was to better understand and communicate the differences between water use and water consumption. This is a particularly important issue, as there has been a lot of discussion lately about water scarcity, water stress, and the risks associated with them.
So what do ”water use” and “water consumption” mean?
“Water use” describes the total amount of water withdrawn from its source to be used. Measures of water usage help evaluate the level of demand from industrial, agricultural, and domestic users. For example, a manufacturing plant might require 10,000 gallons of freshwater a day for cooling, running, or cleaning its equipment. Even if the plant returns 95 percent of that water to the watershed, the plant needs all 10,000 gallons to operate.
“Water consumption” is the portion of water use that is not returned to the original water source after being withdrawn. Consumption occurs when water is lost into the atmosphere through evaporation or incorporated into a product or plant (such as a corn stalk) and is no longer available for reuse. Water consumption is particularly relevant when analyzing water scarcity and the impact of human activities on water availability. For example, irrigated agriculture accounts for 70 percent of water use worldwide and almost 50 percent of that is lost, either evaporated into the atmosphere or transpired through plant leaves.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos two weeks ago, I was struck by how often the issue of water risk was raised by business executives. As the global economic turmoil is receding, many CEOs and global leaders are turning to other threats—and water is high on the list. For the second year in a row, water crises were named among the top four global risks at the WEF.
It’s easy to see why. More than 1.2 billion people already face water scarcity. By 2025, two-thirds of the world population will experience water stress. That’s largely due to population increase and climate change, but also behavior patterns: Water use grew twice as fast as population growth in the 20th century. The “food-water-energy nexus” was one of the top four megatrends to watch in the recently released Global Trends 2030 report by the U.S. National Intelligence Council.
CEOs increasingly recognize that water is essential for their business models and economic growth. Disrupted availability of affordable, clean water leads to business interruptions, increased commodity costs, and reduced earnings. The extreme drought gripping much of the United States is likely to cost up to one percent of GDP, potentially making it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
Some people say that water is the oil of the 21st Century. If only water were that simple.
Water is very complicated. It’s affected by large-scale issues like climate change and globalization. International commerce moves virtual water (the water it takes to grow or produce a product) from farms in Brazil to grocery stores in China and Egypt.
But water is also inherently local, impacted by site-specific weather, geography, and other environmental and land use conditions. Managing and using water, then, requires understanding it in its full geographic context.
Today, WRI is launching its new Aqueduct mapping tool to do just that. Aqueduct provides businesses, governments, and other decision makers with the highest-resolution, most up-to-date data on water risk across the globe. Armed with this information, these decision-makers can better understand how water risk impacts them—and hopefully, take actions to improve water security.
This story is part of the “Aqueduct Sneak Peek” series. Aqueduct Sneak Peek provides an early look at the Aqueduct team’s updated global water risk maps, which will be released in January 2013.
The days leading up to Hurricane Sandy’s landfall were a testament to the power of global data systems in helping to understand and manage risks that natural phenomena can create. A vast, worldwide network of weather monitoring stations and sophisticated remote sensing allowed meteorologists to track and predict Sandy’s progress—and give ample warning to those of us in the hurricane’s path.
The map below is one way to visualize the global data network that makes such analysis possible. It shows Integrated Surface Database (ISD) stations, a widely distributed network of weather stations that all report regularly to a centralized hub.
Can the world have its palm oil and forests, too? This is an issue that my colleague and I discussed a while back. I am pleased to say that we recently moved a step toward ensuring that the answer is “yes.”
Cameroon’s forests, which cover about 60 percent of the country, play a vital role for people and the economy. They account for more than six percent of the nation’s GDP, the highest percentage of all countries in the Congo Basin. Cameroon’s forests provide services and sustenance directly and indirectly to local communities and city dwellers alike.
Yet, until recently, Cameroon lacked a comprehensive information system to actually monitor and manage its forests. There was no integrated system or entity tracking the various forest uses, like logging concessions, community forests, hunting zones, and more. The information that was available was scattered amongst different institutions, wasn’t publicly accessible, or was of a quality insufficient to support legality claims and effective land use decisions. This lack of information exacerbated the unsustainable use of forest resources and sparked conflicts between competing forest stakeholders, such as loggers and community groups.