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National Geographic Society and Utrecht University Launch World Water Map

The new tool, developed on Esri’s ArcGIS, has identified 22 water availability hotspots across the globe as part of a five-year freshwater initiative

Washington, D.C. — Today, the National Geographic Society launched the World Water Map as part of its five-year World Freshwater Initiative to better understand developing freshwater shortages around the world and inspire sustainable action. The Map was created by the National Geographic Society in cooperation with Utrecht University and Esri to identify water availability hotspots, visualize global freshwater supply and demand, and tell the story of how people use water. The Map is based on one of the most advanced open-source models to track water availability in every part of the world.  

The Map provides an interactive view of the sectors of water use; how much water people consume for agricultural, industrial, and household use; and what’s left for nature. The Map, which builds on hydrological models made by Utrecht University, consists of over 40 years of historical data and will be updated periodically to monitor changes in water availability and demand. 

Humanity is facing a water availability crisis characterized by too much water in some places and not enough in others. Half of the world’s population could be living in areas facing water scarcity by as early as 2025 and this is elevated among marginalized communities, according to UN Water. This is driven not only by climate change but also by rapid urban development, contamination, collapsed infrastructure, population growth and distribution, and poor management of water resources. 

As the factors driving water availability are complex and vary across countries and regions, the World Water Map contains multiple layers to visualize the gap between water supply and demand. Developed by National Geographic Explorer and Utrecht University water experts Marc Bierkens and Niko Wanders, and built using Esri’s cutting-edge GIS technology, it is a unique visualization tool that allows users to explore the results of a global scale water availability modeling approach that indicates areas where water demand outpaces renewable water resources – a water gap.

“Mapping the world and how people interact with their natural resources has been a hallmark of National Geographic Society since our earliest days. Our global freshwater resources are irreplaceable, and using mapping to tell the story of freshwater – and how people, wildlife, and nature use it – is part of our ongoing commitment to protect the wonder of our world, said Alex Tait, the Geographer, National Geographic Society. “The World Water Map will be an impactful tool to support freshwater research, conservation, education, and storytelling.”

The World Water Map also identifies 22 hotspots around the world including the Central Valley in California, Java, Indonesia, the Nile River Delta in Egypt, and the Indus River Basin in Pakistan to name a few. Based on the 40 years of data, these hotspots were identified as facing crisis-level water scarcity due to the gap between human water demand and renewable water availability. These crises are exacerbated by several factors including climate change, increased consumption, and economic development, which are straining the demand on water use for agricultural, municipal, industrial and livestock purposes. 

“The water availability crisis is one that will require all of us to understand it and take action to solve it,” said Bierkens. “This map is the first step toward spreading global awareness about the problem and helping us open up discussion about solutions.”

The Map will also be enhanced with stories from National Geographic Explorers – and storytelling grantees supported through the World Freshwater Initiative – who are documenting freshwater challenges in their communities as well as sustainable solutions. The first cohort will be announced during New York Water Week. 

Through the World Water Map, users can also search for their local watershed (zooming in up to 10 kilometers) to understand freshwater availability, demand, and sustainability issues affecting their community, and any given region in the world. 

“To better understand and solve the global water crisis it is necessary to quantify and contextualize water supply and demand, and location intelligence is foundational to this approach,” said Sean Breyer, Program Manager for Living Atlas of the World at Esri. “With the World Water Map, we’re proud to continue our long-standing partnership with National Geographic Society and build our collaboration with Utrecht University to help empower deeper understanding of one of the most pressing current global issues.”

By creating an interactive interface that brings the general public closer to data usually only used by scientific institutions, we can improve our collective understanding of the challenges facing global freshwater access and a growing water gap. The World Water Map serves as an educational tool to help people around the world understand and take action to protect freshwater resources.



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