A conference of 500 leading water scientists from around the
world issued a stark warning that, without major reforms, "in the short
span of one or two generations, the majority of the 9 billion people on Earth
will be living under the handicap of severe pressure on fresh water, an
absolutely essential natural resource for which there is no substitute. This
handicap will be self-inflicted and is, we believe, entirely avoidable."
The scientists bluntly pointed to chronic underlying
problems led by mismanagement and sent a prescription to policy makers in a 1 000-word
declaration issued at the end of a four-day meeting in Bonn, Germany.
What the report found
In the short span of one or two generations, the majority of
the 9 billion people on Earth will be living under the handicap of severe
pressure on fresh water, an absolutely essential natural resource for which
there is no substitute. This handicap will be self-inflicted and is, they
believe, entirely avoidable.
After years of observations and a decade of integrative
research convened under the Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP) and other
initiatives, water scientists are more than ever convinced that fresh water
systems across the planet are in a precarious state.
Mismanagement, overuse and climate change pose long-term
threats to human well-being, and evaluating and responding to those threats
constitutes a major challenge to water researchers and managers alike.
Countless millions of individual local human actions add up and reverberate
into larger regional, continental and global changes that have drastically
changed water flows and storage, impaired water quality, and damaged aquatic
Human activity thus plays a central role in the behaviour of
the global water system.
Since 2004, the Global Water System Project (GWSP) has
spearheaded a broad research agenda and new ways of thinking about water as a
complex global system, emphasizing the links that bind its natural and human
components. Research carried out by GWSP and its partners has produced several
important results that inform a better global understanding of fresh water
Humans and water
Humans are a key feature of the global water system,
influencing prodigious quantities of water: stored in reservoirs, taken from
rivers and groundwater and lost in various ways. Additional deterioration
through pollution, now detectable on a global scale, further limits an
already-stressed resource base, and negatively affects the health of aquatic
life forms and human beings.
At a time of impending water challenges, it remains a
struggle to secure the basic environmental and social observations needed to
obtain an accurate picture of the state of the resource. We need to know about
the availability, condition and use of water as part of a global system through
sustained environmental surveillance. History teaches us that failure to obtain
this basic information will be costly and dangerous.
Humans typically achieve water security through short-term
and often costly engineering solutions, which can create long-lived impacts on
social-ecological systems. Faced with a choice of water for short-term economic
gain or for the more general health of aquatic ecosystems, society
overwhelmingly chooses development, often with deleterious consequences on the
very water systems that provide the resource.
Traditional approaches to development are counterproductive,
destroying the services that healthy water systems provide, such as flood
protection, habitat for fisheries and pollution control. Loss of these services
will adversely affect current and future generations.
Sustainable development requires both technological and
institutional innovation. At present, the formulation of effective institutions
for the management of water lags behind engineering technologies in many
Research from the GWSP and elsewhere confirms that current
increases in the use of water and impairment of the water system are on an
unsustainable trajectory. However, current scientific knowledge cannot predict
exactly how or precisely when a planetary-scale boundary will be breached. Such
a tipping point could trigger irreversible change with potentially catastrophic
The existing focus on water supply, sanitation and hygiene
has delivered undoubted benefits to people around the world, but equally, we
need to consider wider Sustainable Development Goals in the context of the
global water system. Ecosystem-based sustainable water management, a pressing
need that was reaffirmed at the Rio+20 Earth Summit, requires that solving
water problems must be a joint obligation of environmental scientists, social
scientists, engineers, policy-makers, and a wide range of stakeholders.
These realities motivate the water community assembled in
Bonn for the Global Water System Project Conference "Water in the
Anthropocene" to make a set of core recommendations to institutions and
individuals focused on science, governance, management and decision-making
relevant to water resources on earth. Given the development imperatives
associated with all natural resources at the dawn of the 21st century, we urge
a united front to form a strategic partnership of scientists, public
stakeholders, decision-makers and the private sector. This partnership should
develop a broad, community-consensus blueprint for a reality-based,
multi-perspective, and multi-scale knowledge-to-action water agenda, based on
1) Make a renewed commitment to adopt a multi-scale and
interdisciplinary approach to water science in order to understand the complex
and interlinked nature of the global water system and how it may change now and
2) Execute state-of-the-art synthesis studies of knowledge
about fresh water that can inform risk assessments and be used to develop
strategies to better promote the protection of water systems.
3) Train the next generation of water scientists and
practitioners in global change research and management, making use of
cross-scale analysis and integrated system design.
4) Expand monitoring, through traditional land-based
environmental observation networks and state-of-the-art earth-observation
satellite systems, to provide detailed observations of water system state.
5) Consider ecosystem-based alternatives to costly
structural solutions for climate proofing, such that the design of the built
environment in future includes both traditional and green infrastructure.
6) Stimulate innovation in water institutions, with a
balance of technical- and governance-based solutions and taking heed of value
systems and equity. A failure to adopt a more inclusive approach will make it
impossible to design effective green growth strategies or policies.
The recommendations above, taken collectively, can
constitute the centrepiece of a blueprint to promote the adoption of
science-based evidence into the formulation of goals for sustainable
development. Stewardship requires balancing the needs of humankind and the
needs of nature through the protection of ecosystems and the services that they
Without such a design framework, we anticipate highly
fragmented decision-making and the persistence of maladaptive approaches to