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Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity

An Erratum to this article was published on 10 November 2010

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Protecting the world’s freshwater resources requires diagnosing threats over a broad range of scales, from global to local. Here we present the first worldwide synthesis to jointly consider human and biodiversity perspectives on water security using a spatial framework that quantifies multiple stressors and accounts for downstream impacts. We find that nearly 80% of the world’s population is exposed to high levels of threat to water security. Massive investment in water technology enables rich nations to offset high stressor levels without remedying their underlying causes, whereas less wealthy nations remain vulnerable. A similar lack of precautionary investment jeopardizes biodiversity, with habitats associated with 65% of continental discharge classified as moderately to highly threatened. The cumulative threat framework offers a tool for prioritizing policy and management responses to this crisis, and underscores the necessity of limiting threats at their source instead of through costly remediation of symptoms in order to assure global water security for both humans and freshwater biodiversity.

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Figure 1: Global geography of incident threat to human water security and biodiversity.
Figure 2: Incident biodiversity threat transects from headwaters to ocean.
Figure 3: Theme and driver contributions in areas where incident threat exceeds the 75th percentile.
Figure 4: Shifts in spatial patterns of relative human water security threat after accounting for water technology benefits.
Figure 5: Globally aggregated human water security threat indices linked to population and level of economic development.
Figure 6: Prevailing patterns of threat to human water security and biodiversity.

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  • 30 September 2010

    In the PDF version of this Article, the present address for P. B. McIntyre was truncated; this had now been corrected


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We thank A. DeSherbinin, L. Poff, C. Revenga, J. Melillo and O. Young for comments on the manuscript; D. Allan, R. Abell, J. Bogardi, M. Meybeck, W. Wollheim, R. F. Wright, D. Boswell, R. Lacey, N. Schneider and D. Vörösmarty for advice; and D. Dube and B. Fekete for technical support. Grant support for database and tool development was from NASA Inter-Disciplinary Science Program Grant NNX07AF28G, with additional support from the NSF Division of Earth Sciences (Hydrologic Sciences Program Award #0854957) and Global Environment Facility (UPI 00345306). P.B.M. was supported by a D.H. Smith Fellowship. Financial and logistical support for expert group meetings and communications was from the Global Water System Project (Bonn), DIVERSITAS-freshwaterBIODIVERSITY (Paris), NSF BestNet, and Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) through the Australian Water Research Facility. Conference facilities were provided by the Swiss Federal Institute of Science & Technology (Eawag) and The City College of New York/CUNY.

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Authors and Affiliations



All authors contributed to project conceptualization during workshops led by C.J.V. C.J.V. designed the global analysis, and P.B.M., A.P., P.G. and M.O.G. designed and implemented the analytical approach with essential input from S.E.B., D.D., C.A.S., P.M.D. and C.R.L. A.P., P.G. and S.G. developed the database and mapping tools. Several authors led a separate component of data set development and all provided quality assurance. C.J.V., P.B.M. and M.O.G. wrote the manuscript with input from all authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to C. J. Vörösmarty.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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This file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Tables 1-3, Supplementary Figures 1- 12 with legends, Supplementary Discussion, and additional references. (PDF 11253 kb)

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Vörösmarty, C., McIntyre, P., Gessner, M. et al. Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity. Nature 467, 555–561 (2010).

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