Water Risk and Planning: Assessing Water Stress with the Water Risk Atlas

Water stress is growing worldwide. Over the past 10 years, water stress is more severe in China, South Asia, and the Western United States.  Study after study proves that this increased stress is attributed to growing demand for freshwater and supply shortages. Shifting global precipitation patterns from climate change are the culprits. The graph below provides the perfect story. In 2010, the biggest water users were major coal producing/consuming countries. In developing countries, agriculture is the major water user, but industries such as coal-mining exacerbate the problem.

Water withdrawal WRI

2010 Water Withdrawal by Sector of Major Coal-producing/consuming Countries (Source: WRI Aqueduct)

Additionally, half of the seven most water-stressed countries also face high to extremely high seasonal variability. In each of these countries, the water supply varies dramatically between wet and dry seasons within a year. This volatility disrupts industry operations, cuts agricultural production and places severe risks on the most vulnerable populations.

Case in point: for those of us in Texas, the 2011 drought placed exceptional stress on the power grid. Texans avoided blackouts by placing restrictions on farmers and ranchers with senior water rights. This is the first time we experienced tension over water resources from both the agriculture and energy industries.

I’ve had many conversations with my fellow Houstonians, environmental nonprofits, and government entities about water risk. I’ve come to one conclusion: our understanding and interests with water risk are cyclical. For three years, we thought drought was the biggest risk to our businesses and natural environment. Fast forward to 2015 and the conversation shifts to flooding thanks to the deadly Memorial Day floods. Short-sighted thinking yields short-term results. Resiliency planning is the solution. Whether Houston, California or South Asia, proper assessment of water risk is necessary.

It doesn’t matter where you live. If cities cannot meet their needs, costly alternative water sources are necessary. The more dependent a region becomes on alternative water sources, the higher the water risks. Paul Reig, lead developer of the WRI Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, an open source water risk tool, spoke with January Advisors from his office in Washington D.C. about the importance of assessing water risks in the face of depleting water supply.


SS: Paul, what is the World Resources Institute and what should people know about what you do?

PR: We’re a global research organization that spans about 50 countries around the world.  We have more than 450 experts and staff that work with government, business, finance, and civil society leaders to help turn big ideas into action to sustain natural resources, which we see as the foundation of economic opportunity as well as human well-being.  Within WRI, I oversee the technical development of the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, which is an online global database of water risk information and I also lead most of our engagement with the private sector on water.

SS: Why is water risk an issue and why did WRI feel the need to focus on it?

PR: About four or five years ago, a number of large organizations approached WRI, concerned about the increasing awareness of water challenges around the world, challenges around having either not enough water or too much water, in the case of floods.  Challenges around understanding regulatory constraints to accessing water, regulatory uncertainty and how that would impact water users as well as the social challenges around water, such as the need to meet access to water and sanitation.  And these organizations flagged an issue that the problem is that all of the issues, although globally relevant, they’re extremely local, right?  Therefore they vary tremendously between locations where there’s varied geographies and geographically specific issues.  So, global organizations working across political boundaries and hydrological boundaries were finding it challenging to understand their exposure to these issues globally, and it was hard for them to understand their exposure to them because, because they’re so local, most of the data that’s being collected in a local level is being collected differently, right?  When it comes time to understanding exposure to these issues across a portfolio of locations in a comparable way, it’s challenging because the data is different and there are data gaps in some countries, and therefore it was really difficult to get a comprehensive picture of what these risks were and where they were.  And so, in response to this challenge, WRI engaged with a number of organizations and decided to build a global database of comparable, but at the same time, very granular and robust information on water risk.  That is what lead us to develop the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas.

SS: What exactly is the Aqueduct tool and why is it the best way to address water risk issues?

PR: Aqueduct is an online, open access web-based tool.  It includes two types of information. First, it includes information on current water related risks.  This type of information is displayed using 12 indicators that are constructed using historic information of water supply and demand, and drought competition, and a number of other variables.  And that helps the user to get a sense of what kind of  baseline conditions are anywhere in the world.  The second type of information that we provide is forward looking information and how water supply, demand, and stress, and their variability is likely going to change over  time.  Take into consideration changes in communication patterns, definitely changes in climate, as well as changes in the demand for water that is driven by social common growth, population growth, and the increasing demand for water. The data is displayed on a map in a very simple, comprehensive way using scores from one to five. So, one being low and five being high risk. So, facilitate the communication with the results. All of this is open access. Users can visualize the data online, the can conduct an analysis online. They can also download the data, so more advanced users can have a software that can work with spatial data like this, they can download the data and do the analysis in house. The data was collected over the course of a few years, working in close collaboration with a mixture of an old advisement group. We had specific criteria for data that we would collect. We brought that together and shared it with the advisor group, as well as the selection of indicators and then over the course of a number of years they made that available online for use of everybody.


A map of the baseline water stress in the United States. Note the extremely high stress from Texas and Great Plains to California where a record-breaking drought has a stranglehold on the region (Map created using the WRI Water Risk Atlas)

SS: How important was it to you and WRI to keep this data open?

PR: I think the biggest driver there and our goal is to change and improve how decisions are being made around managing water resources with better information on risks, which will hopefully lead to better decisions on how to mitigate those risks and improve management in the long term. In order to achieve that goal, I think the greatest way to do that is by scanning the reach of your data so that anybody, anywhere in the world with access to the internet can benefit from this information. That’s why it’s open. Additionally, not only can the data be used by practitioners it can also be used and incorporated into derivative products. So, a lot of organizations are doing risk assessment, their financial risk assessment or they’re doing environmental and social governance risk assessment and they want to incorporate a water component to it they can leverage out enough data.

SS: What were the difficulties in obtaining this data?

PR: I think we could speak for probably a day and half on difficulties. Early on in the process we realized that the only way to really achieve comparability in results was to use the global data set. So, that was the first criteria, that we were only going to use data that was already provided at a global level and has global coverage. Therefore that limits a large number of national and subnational datasets that are collected by different companies. That was the first criteria that we used. Secondly, we aimed to use data only that’s coming from trusted sources, either from academia, from government, from other ones we choose that have published their methodology and their methodology is transparent on its ability to really deliver the type of information needed. In terms of difficulty, I think the biggest difficulty was to incorporate information on all water related risks. There’s some issues that are currently absent and are being monitored globally. For example there is very little information collected globally on the price of water. There is very little information globally collected on transfers of water between river basins and the role of infrastructure and delivering supply. That information at a global level is very hard to combine. I think that was one of the biggest challenges with certain dimensions that we wanted to measure were not being monitored globally. What we do well is ensure comparability of the results.

June 9, 2001 | Overflow from White Oak Bayou near downtown Houston, Texas after Tropical Storm Allison inundated the city.

SS:  What are the next steps for the tool? Where do you see it going in the next couple of years?

PR: Well, I think , the first step is to update some of our current information with more recent data. A lot of baseline information is for the year 2010. That’s already five years old. So we expect to update with more recent data. We would also like to see improvements in the range of types of indicators. We would like to obtain much better information on the depreciation of aquifers, better information on sustainability of groundwater use or maybe better information on coastal flood risks around the world. I think those are probably the two biggest things that we deal with over the next few years.

SS: Paul, this is wonderful information. Thank you so much for your time.

PR: Great. No problem.

Sachin Shah