How can we better manage our planet’s water supply?

Juan Carlos Castilla-Rubio
Chairman, Space Time Ventures
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The contours of the world’s water resource management challenges are well known. Rising populations coupled with increasing per capita water consumption in the emerging markets will create substantially greater demand for water in urban, peri-urban, and rural environments around the world for uses in agriculture, industry, energy and human water supply systems.

Meanwhile, water supplies will become more variable and vulnerable over time due to increasing intensity and frequency of weather extremes and ever rising sea levels associated with a warming planet, especially those in arid and semi-arid regions and areas that depend on water supplies from distant locations.

Water quality problems associated with the pollution, agricultural chemical run-off, eutrophication or contamination of aquifers, rivers, and coastal and marine areas could damage both the supply of potable water and the provision of a wide range of other ecosystem services. Moreover, society’s ability to manage these challenges is impaired by a number of complex and seemingly intractable scientific, technological, informational, political, economic, cultural and institutional challenges that have limited the solution space at scale.

In this context, we urgently need to improve insights on when, how and where the next problems are likely to materialize in the future, and under what assumptions, scenarios and impacts. Most technical approaches to date are static, lack geospatial resolution and global coverage, and do not incorporate effective risk analyses. However, these features are precisely the decision support capabilities that policymakers, regulators, water managers, farmers, miners, investors, energy managers, water utility managers and industrial asset operators need in order to make better water resource policy, investment and management decisions.

Decision-makers need science-driven decision support to reconcile water demand competition at local and regional levels and to build consensus among stakeholders for long-term water resource planning, to drastically increase water productivity and to manage ever rising water risks, as the California and Sao Paulo developments clearly demonstrate. However, dynamic data at appropriate spatial and temporal resolution are uncommon with substantial gaps around the world, particularly in the developing world. This is precisely why we must urgently work to provide a credible and actionable baseline for independent science-based monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of  surface water resources globally.

Though every watershed faces unique challenges, a global water resources MRV platform would support end-user decision-making through historic baselining, near real time monitoring and what if scenario modeling to support a number of complex and urgent decisions in:

  • Water Resource Management to optimize water (re)allocation strategies, reservoir and water transport management, hydropower systems, energy generation strategies, demand-side management, for informing crop-choice optimization decisions and to enable a water productivity revolution through low cost  precision irrigation solutions in agriculture, amongst many others.
  • Water Risk Management to provide early warning & planning systems for floods and droughts to both assess the reliability of flood infrastructure and drought water storage policies and investments and to improve disaster response strategies, and to enable the water-proofing productivity innovations that mitigates risks, among many others.

Recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and machine learning have the potential to provide open, transparent science-based MRV of surface water resources globally using NASA’s openly available earth observation satellite platforms. In the near future, low cost nanosatellite constellations that are being launched will enable higher resolution and higher frequency multi-spectral sensing that coupled with sophisticated biophysical and risk analytics will greatly advance the required Water MRV capabilities over time.

We believe that a public-private partnership is urgently required to research, develop and operate a global science-based MRV platform for water resources and that this would inherently drive and develop trust. We urgently need to build trust so that decision makers and communities can collaboratively diagnose the risks and the resource productivity opportunities systematically before directing their actions to the most effective adaptation strategies to the ever increasing water challenge in a warming planet.

Authors: Juan Carlos Castilla-Rubio, Chair, Planetary Skin Institute and Member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Advisory Council. Vipin Kumar, Professor & Chair Large Scale Computing, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, University of Minnesota

Image: An earthquake survivor drinks water from a well in a provisional camp at downtown Port-au-Prince REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

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