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New research to help safeguard global water


Zuleika Henderson
30 September 2010
With human activities such as agricultural run-off, pollution and invasive species threatening rivers that serve 80 per cent of the world’s population, a new research paper providing a global analysis of threats to fresh water could help identify areas most at risk of water failure in the future.

The research paper, which featured this month as the cover story of major international science magazine 'Nature', is the first global-scale initiative to simultaneously quantify the impact of human-induced stressors on water security and aquatic biodiversity.

The research provides a framework for diagnosing the primary threats to water security on both a local and global level, which it is hoped could be the first step towards securing future water resources for both humans and other species.

Associate Professor Caroline Sullivan of Southern Cross University, who is one of the study’s three Australian-based co-authors, developed the methodology used to make the calculations on which the results of the research are based and hosted the original workshop in the UK where the project was first conceived.

“Water is one of the most essential of natural resources, yet the earth's available supplies of fresh water, and irreplaceable freshwater biodiversity, are vulnerable to human mismanagement, as well as to climate change,” said Professor Sullivan.

“This research has illustrated that the reliance of wealthy nations like Australia on costly technological remedies to overcome water problems does little to address the multiple underlying threats - as can be seen in regions such as the Murray-Darling Basin and many other major rivers of the world.

“In addition, investments that have been made in water infrastructure have often led to acceleration in the decline of freshwater species.

“The research, which is based on comprehensive observational data and peer-reviewed evidence of human impacts, has clearly demonstrated across the world that overcoming the crisis of water insecurity in Australia and globally requires a proactive approach to environmental management. Rather than trying to deal with threats once they arise, it’s more cost-effective and sustainable to ensure that river systems are not impaired in the first place.

“Proactive management of water resources incorporates a range of possibilities. These could include better land use practices, prevention of deforestation, better irrigation techniques and emphasis on protecting ecosystems. In Australia, coastal development including the provision of utilities should include approaches that integrate with nature, rather than work against it.”

The research paper, weighed up a range of individual threats to water security, both from a human and biodiversity perspective, combining them into a collective ‘incident threat index’.

From this, the research showed that investment by high-income countries benefits 850 million people by lowering their exposure to high levels of incident threat by 95 per cent. While this may be seen as a success, the cost to biodiversity and freshwater ecosystems has been high. In comparison, minimal investment in developing countries means that vulnerability to incident threat continues to remain high for both humans and freshwater ecosystems.

“The highly engineered solutions practiced traditionally by industrialised nations, emphasise treatment of the symptoms rather than protection of resources. Crucial technologies which can make a difference often prove too costly for poorer nations, resulting in an ongoing state of perilous water insecurity,” said Professor Sullivan.

“Add to that the ever rising pressure from human populations, and it’s very difficult for progress to be made.

“Access to safe water is a necessary condition for an adequate quality of life, and if you don’t have water you are almost certainly always going to be poor. Sadly, many millions of people remain in a pitiful state of poverty due to lack of adequate access to water - a vital ethical, economic and security issue which must be addressed.

“There is a pressing need for major policy and financial commitments from governments around the world to support a more holistic approach to environmental management - but more than that, we as individuals also need to take responsibility for the impact that our lifestyle has on the environment.

“Until people realise the severity of the problem and there is a change in attitude towards our levels of consumption, we could be heading for a situation where our environment can no longer support us, and stark contrasts in human water security will continue to separate the rich from the poor.

“We must, once and for all, recognize that the earth is our finite life-support system. This is not about trendy fads and petty politics. This is simply about the future of humans as a species on earth, and we must do something now, if we want to be here in years to come.”

For more information go to the project website at

Photo: Associate Professor Caroline Sullivan (alternative images available on request)