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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.

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This piece was co-authored with Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary general and executive director of UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

This piece explores how advances in technology can curb illegal logging, written in honor of the first International Day of Forests. It originally appeared on The Guardian's Sustainable Business Blog.

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.

Case Study: Aqueduct Informs Owens Corning Corporate Water Strategy

Owens Corning, a multinational building materials manufacturer, conducted a global geographic water risk assessment using WRI’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas. This assessment aims to identify which of Owens Corning’s manufacturing plants are located in areas facing water supply-related risks....



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