The quest for water security has been a struggle throughout human history. Only in recent years has the scale of this quest moved beyond the local, to the national and regional scales and to the planet itself. Absent or unreliable water supply, sanitation and irrigation services, unmitigated floods and droughts, and degraded water environments severely impact half of the planet’s population. Spillovers from these impacts, including supply chain failures, financial shocks, migration and political instability, now ripple across our interconnected world. The impacts of rapidly changing economies, populations and climate on fresh water fluxes, on which all terrestrial life depend, are unknown – although it is clear that most of the impacts of climate change on society will be transmitted by water. Building on its long history of applying world-class science to the resolution of grand challenges, IIASA launched a new initiative “Water Futures and Solutions” (WFaS) in 2012, bringing to bear its unique skills, datasets, policy links and reputation.
Only recently has it been recognized that the poorest parts of the world (e.g., Africa and South and Southeast Asia) are deeply water insecure today in part because they face very high rainfall and runoff variability. Overcoming this variability and complexity requires major investments in water information, institutions and infrastructure. Wealthy countries face much less challenging hydrological conditions, with the few exceptions (such as Australia and the Western USA) having a recent history of massive inward investment of skill and capital. It has also become clear that ‘northern’ science needs significant refinement for its application to the highly variable and vulnerable hydrological systems of the ‘south’. This hydrological complexity adds significantly to the challenge of sustained economic growth in poor countries, requiring innovative development paths. At the same time, these paths need, to the extent possible, to avoid the high price of ecosystem damage that most wealthy countries have paid on their paths to growth. The need for IIASA’s applied systems analysis to analyse root causes, alternative development paths and future outcomes, is clear. Government policy initiatives in complex conditions need strong underpinning science; without it, policy is gambling.
Over the past few years, water insecurity has become recognized in the World Economic Forum global risk studies as one of the greatest threats that business leaders themselves see that they face in the future, both in terms of likelihood and scale. Recent water-related shocks in emerging economies are evidence of this, with massive insurance losses and with supply chain failures and price shocks rippling across the world. Unless these risks can be mitigated, business investments will stall, with severe consequences both for enterprise and for development. IIASA’s science program is designed to support both business and governments, helping to identify, mitigate and manage these risks.
The scale and complexity of the water challenges faced by society, particularly but not only in the world’s poorest regions, are now recognized, as is the imperative of overcoming these challenges for a stable and equitable world. IIASA’s WFaS is an unprecedented inter-disciplinary scientific initiative to define the challenges and identify and test solutions across different economic sectors, including agriculture, energy and industry. New water scenarios, based on cutting-edge global modeling, seek breakthroughs not only in problem understanding but also in development of solutions. This scenario-based water analysis pioneers an interdisciplinary approach, combining multi-model ensemble analysis across sectors and socio-economic factors such as governance. The initiative includes a major stakeholder consultation component, to inform and guide the science and to test and refine policy and business outcomes.
The WFaS initiative was launched with four additional partners, all institutions that are committed to promoting the scientific evidence base for global water security. In addition, IIASA is working closely with complementary efforts of other scientific groups around the world, in the belief that this will enhance the delivery and quality of outcomes and strengthen the scientific capacity to sustain policy-relevant research into the future. IIASA now seeks funding to move the initiative beyond its initial scoping phase. Financing partners are sought from:
Last edited: 09 June 2019
Program Director and Principal Research Scholar Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program
Guest Research Scholar Water Security Research Group - Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program
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International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
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