Water Risks are Growing; Here’s a Tool to Help Us Prepare

This map shows annual, seasonal and dry-year depletion for 15,091 watersheds worldwide. The inclusion of season and dry-year depletion estimates increases by 15-fold the number of watersheds experiencing depletion of 75% or more. Source: Kate A. Brauman et al., in Elementa, January 20, 2016.
This map shows annual, seasonal and dry-year depletion for 15,091 watersheds worldwide. The inclusion of season and dry-year depletion estimates increases by 15-fold the number of watersheds experiencing depletion of 75% or more. Source: Kate A. Brauman et al., in Elementa, January 20, 2016.

Earlier this month, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, released its annual risk assessment, which looks across the spectrum of threats to society and ranks them. This year, it declared water crises to be the top global risk to society over the next decade.

Just behind water crises were the failure to adapt to climate change, extreme weather events, food crises and profound social instability. Together, these five threats constitute an interwoven risk landscape that has water shortages, in one way or another, at its core.

The Forum is not predisposed to emphasize environmental concerns. Terrorism, fiscal crises and the spread of infectious diseases are among the risks it considers and ranks. The Forum’s members include heads of state, chief executive officers and civic leaders.

Water topped one of the risk categories in the 2015 assessment, as well.

If an alarm bell was needed to focus global attention on water security, it has rung.

Last week, a team of colleagues and I released a new tool to help planners and policy-makers better understand the geography and nature of water risks around the globe. Our work was published in the journal Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene.

Our tool, though developed with some complex modeling, is represented by a very straightforward global map that depicts the depletion of water at a high degree of spatial resolution. (By “depletion,” we mean the fraction of renewable surface water and groundwater available in a watershed that is consumed by human activities.) This tool differs from most others available in two important ways.

Whereas most scarcity —> Read More

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