A One-Stop Shop for Water Worries


Rachel Nuwer

Green Blog


Water, or the lack thereof, is one of the defining challenges of the 21st century. As temperatures rise and droughts become more frequent, the threat of dwindling water resources worries not just environmentalists and governments but companies and their investors, too.

Nearly every industrial sector, from food and beverages to mining to pharmaceuticals, depends on water for its operations. Figuring out which places are likely to be hit hardest can help a company either steer clear of a certain region or plan ahead to minimize damage to its business or supply chain.
Now, a new interactive tool is at hand to help clarify those risks.
The Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, just unveiled online by the nonprofit World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct project, maps the state of freshwater globally. The interface allows companies, investors, governments or any other interested party to visualize and compare water conditions, from the continental scale to the local one.
“As important as water is, we give it very little attention,” said Betsy Otto, the project’s director. “We haven’t invested as we should in pricing, tracking and locating water in ways that make most sense for human economies.”
Ms. Otto’s working assumption is that if companies have the means to take water risks into consideration, they will do so. Many companies have already made that commitment, and some are partners on the Aqueduct project, including Goldman Sachs, General Electric, Bloomberg, Talisman Energy and Dow.
“For us, water is a strategic issue,” said Kyung-Ah Park, head of the environmental markets group at Goldman Sachs. “We look at supply chain issues and disruptions which could have an implication on our client’s bottom line.”
The full version of the atlas, three years in the making, harnesses the latest geo-tagged scientific data to create 12 different indicators of water quality, including drought, flood and seasonal variability. The indicators visually overlay one another to create a composite view of aggregate water stress. The ecosystems layer, for example, highlights fragile habitats where freshwater fishes, amphibians and birds may live, while the groundwater supply layer — the first of its kind to be included in such an analysis — indicates places where aquifers might be drying up.
Not every user, however, defines risk in the same way, and the tool enables you to weight different indicators accordingly. Aqueduct also provides preset water scenarios tailored to 10 different sectors, including semiconductor manufacturing, textiles, and oil and gas. More advanced users can shape the maps to fit individual needs.
“Once a company develops a map to perfectly reflect its scenario, it can compare which places expose its operation to the highest risk,” said Robert Kimball, an associate at the World Resources Institute. “We want the information to be out there in an easily usable, accessible way.”
The institute acknowledges that the maps are not perfect. Information is far from complete on global groundwater conditions, for example, and very few real-time monitoring efforts are in place for freshwater. The organization plans to gradually incorporate new findings, however, including remote sensing data and monitoring results from NASA satellites.
In April, it plans to release maps predicting the water situation for 2020; projections for 2030 and 2040 will follow.