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New Study Raises Question: What Don’t We Know About Water Scarcity?

A new study from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) reveals troubling news: The aquifers that millions of Americans rely on for freshwater are being depleted at an accelerating rate. In fact, aquifer depletion in the years between 2004 and 2008 was nearly triple the historical average.

Population growth and increasing demand—in particular for irrigating crops—are straining these underground freshwater sources. In many cases, aquifers have accumulated over the course of millions of years.

There are two lessons we take away from this USGS study:

  1. Growing demand is increasingly coming into conflict with our finite global water supply. Even in places that are historically water-abundant, growth in water demand is outstripping available supply. (That’s why WRI’s Aqueduct project focuses on water stress – the ratio of water supply and demand – more than measures of water quantity.)

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Step-by-Step Guidance on Corporate Water Disclosure

Investors need to understand a wide variety of business and market risks facing the companies in which they invest. In the 21st century, that includes water risks.

An increasing number of companies are experiencing detrimental water-related business impacts, including operational or supply chain disruptions and property damage from flooding, to name a few. These impacts can be costly--in 2011 they cost some companies up to $200 million--and have caught the attention of investors around the world.

As a result, the movement toward increased Corporate Water Disclosure is gaining speed. The deadline for companies to respond to the CDP 2013 Water Disclosure Questionnaire is six weeks away. To make the reporting process easier, WRI has aligned our Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas with CDP’s water questionnaire. Together, we are providing step-by-step guidance on how to measure and report exposure to water-related risks.

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Nearly Half of U.S. Fracking Sites Overlap with Water-Stressed Regions

A new report from CERES draws a connection between water risk and hydraulic fracturing in the United States. The report adds an important dimension to the conversation about how energy use and water stress will play out in the years ahead.

The report, Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress: Growing Competitive Pressures for Water, brings together Aqueduct’s high-resolution water stress maps with FracFocus.org data on the location and water use of U.S. shale oil and gas wells. The complete map (see below) shows where potentially water-intense hydraulic fracturing is happening in water-stressed areas.

The results of the study are eye-opening: Almost half of the more than 25,000 oil and gas wells mapped by Ceres are in water basins with either high or extremely high water stress.

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Food and Fuel: 2 Grand Challenges Facing Us this Earth Day

Since the very first Earth Day more than four decades ago, the environmental movement has tackled a wide range of problems, including air pollution, contaminated water, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and more. But this Earth Day, I propose that there are two fundamental issues the movement must address over the coming decade if it is ever to defuse the tension between development and the environment. In fact, these two issues underlie many, if not most, of the world’s environmental challenges.

I’m referring here to the human quest for food and the human quest for fuel.

Unsustainable Food Production

Food production has significant―but often underestimated―impacts on the environment. Take climate, for instance: About one-quarter of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions are agriculture-related. In particular, nearly 13 percent of global emissions comes from livestock, fertilizer use, and farm-related energy consumption, while another 11 percent results from the clearing of forests and other ecosystems, primarily for agriculture.

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Can Nutrient Trading Shrink the Gulf of Mexico's Dead Zone?

The Gulf of Mexico has the largest dead zone in the United States and the second-largest in the world. Dead zones form when excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous wash into waterways and spur algal blooms, depleting the water of oxygen and killing fish, shrimp, and other marine life. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone can range between an astounding 3,000 and 8,000 square miles. At its largest, it’s about the size of Massachusetts.

Reducing this growing dead zone problem is a huge scientific, technical, economic, and political challenge. It’s a conundrum that agricultural and environmental experts from across the United States will deliberate this week at the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force meeting in Louisville, Kentucky.

One new approach they’ll discuss is voluntary nutrient trading. According to a new study conducted by WRI staff for the EPA, this strategy could be used in the Mississippi River Basin to cost-effectively reduce nitrogen and phosphorous pollution and shrink the Gulf of Mexico dead zone.

  • LEARN MORE: Download the full study on the economic feasibility of nutrient trading in the Mississippi River Basin.

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Navigating the "Vast Sea of Unknowns" of Water Risk

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.

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In the Face of Growing Risks, Every Day Is a World Water Day

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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What's the Big Idea? Measuring and Mapping Water Risk

Water scarcity is one of the defining issues of the 21st century. In its Global Risks 2013 report, the World Economic Forum identified water supply crises as one of the highest impact and most likely risks facing the planet.

What’s the Difference Between Water Use and Water Consumption?

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.

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