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What We Don’t Know About Water Can Hurt Us

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.

Like extreme weather events, water scarcity creates impacts that range widely and rarely adhere to political boundaries. Despite these concerns, we lack a water equivalent to the ISD – a standardized, global dataset that would allow decisionmakers to see the whole picture of water scarcity.

The closest thing we have is the Global Runoff Data Center (GRDC), visualized in the map below. The white areas show places where data on water availability is not reported at all, either due to the cost and difficulty of collecting data or a desire to keep that data confidential. As the preponderance of yellow and red points on the map indicate, many of the monitoring stations that are in place do not report with the regularity needed to be truly helpful (compare that to the ISD map, where all the purple dots represent data reported within the last year). The absence of robust global datasets on water availability makes it difficult to understand where and how scarcity and other water risks are emerging around the world.

However, with advanced hydrological modeling techniques and observations from space, it is possible to generate meaningful information in spite of existing data gaps. The World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct project’s newest global maps, launching in January of 2013, do just that: employing the best available techniques and data to provide high-resolution, global perspective on the complexity of water risk. By employing these new and sophisticated techniques, Aqueduct's new maps are able to extract the most information possible from what limited data is available on global water availability and use.

Nonetheless, nothing beats on-the-ground observations about where water is and where it is being used. As water issues become more pressing across the globe, they act as a signal that governments must do a better job of collecting—and sharing—water data.

Check our Insights blog regularly, where we’ll continue to provide “sneak peaks” into our updated global water maps.

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