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Blog Posts: watersheds

  • This piece was co-written with Dr. Larry Brilliant, president of the Skoll Global Threats Fund.

    This piece also appeared in McClatchy News and the Huffington Post.

    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.

    [youtube I80-UpaCsT8]

  • 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.

  • This post was co-written with James Mulligan, Executive Director at Green Community Ventures.

    Natural ecosystems provide essential services for our communities. Forests and wetlands, for example, filter the water we drink, protect neighborhoods from floods and droughts, and shade aquatic habitat for fish populations.

    While nature provides this “green infrastructure,” water utilities and other decision-makers often attempt to replicate these services with concrete-and-steel “gray infrastructure”—usually at a much greater cost. Particularly where the equivalent natural ecosystems are degraded, we build filtration plants to clean water, reservoirs to regulate water flow, and mechanical chillers to protect fish from increasing stream temperatures. And even though healthy ecosystems can reduce the operational costs of these structures, investing in restoring or enhancing various types of green infrastructure is rarely pursued—either as a substitute for or complement to gray infrastructure.

    Despite America’s history of reliance on gray infrastructure, now is a critical time to tip the scales in favor of a green infrastructure approach to water-resource management. Investing in the conservation and improved management of natural ecosystems to secure and protect water systems can keep costs down and create jobs. Green infrastructure can also provide a suite of co-benefits for the air we breathe, the places we play, the wildlife we share our landscapes with, and the climate we live in.

  • Water supply and availability could be the most pressing problem restricting China’s economic growth in the next 10-15 years, according to a new report by the Asian Development Bank. Not only are water resources limited (only about 30 percent of total water resources are available for use), but many surface and groundwater sources are suffering from severe pollution.[^1] The Chinese government is now looking to invest in new ideas to improve water quality and supply, and WRI is using its water quality trading expertise to explore the potential of market-based methods to improve water quality and increase the supply of clean water from Chao Lake, the fifth-largest lake in China.

  • Forested watersheds of the southern United States provide numerous services to the region. At no cost, they purify water, control flooding and erosion, and provide places for people to relax and have fun. Yet despite their value, many watersheds are under threat from development and poor land management.

    “Payments for Watershed Services” (PWS) programs are one strategy to keep watersheds healthy. Through a PWS program, landowners receive financial incentives to conserve, sustainably manage, and/or restore watersheds to yield the kinds of benefits described above.

  • Using markets to protect and restore ecosystems – and the many services they provide – is gradually becoming a reality. Market-based systems have already protected hundreds of thousands of acres of land while still meeting human economic and development needs. They can help ensure that environmental benefits, from wildlife habitat to water purification, will be preserved for future generations.

    But what are the critical elements for success? What progress has been made? What are the innovative ideas that will push these markets forward? The World Resources Institute and the American Forest Foundation recently convened some of the world’s leading experts on ecosystem markets in Madison, Wisconsin to address these questions.

  • 2011 will be an important year for the Chesapeake Bay, not only because scientists are predicting an unusually bad “dead zone” this summer.

    Last December, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) that establish the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that the Bay and its tidal tributaries can safely receive each year. The TMDLs divide the pollution loads among sources, such as urban areas regulated for stormwater runoff, wastewater treatment plants, and agricultural lands.

    Now, responsibility for implementing the TMDLs falls to states in the Bay watershed that have been delegated authority from EPA to run water quality programs. By December 1, 2011, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia will submit plans to EPA that explain how sources within their jurisdiction will meet and maintain the TMDLs.

    The December deadline has states reviewing legislation and regulations that could reduce the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that impairs Bay water bodies.

  • This piece originally appeared in the India Business Council for Sustainable Development quarterly magazine, Volume 8, Issue 2, in July 2011.

    In August of 2010, the Indian electricity company Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd (SJVN) lost its source of power in Himachal Pradesh. Deforestation and river alterations upstream of the company’s dam had aggravated erosion in the area. Without the trees, heavy rains washed an unprecedented amount of sediment straight into the water, lowering dam reservoir capacity and power output. The resulting 22 days of closure for the facility left millions of people without power and cost the company upwards of $42 million, or INR. 198 Crore.

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