Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity

An Erratum to this article was published on 10 November 2010

This article has been updated

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

$32.00

All prices are NET prices.

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.

Change history

  • 30 September 2010

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

References

  1. Meybeck, M. Global analysis of river systems: from Earth system controls to Anthropocene syndromes. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B (2003)

  2. World Water Assessment Programme. Water in a Changing World. The United Nations World Water Development Report 3 (UNESCO, 2009)

  3. Vörösmarty, C. J. et al. in Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Vol. 1, Ch. 7, 165–207 (Island Press, 2005)

    Google Scholar 

  4. Karl T. R., Melillo J. M., Peterson T. C., eds. Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009)

  5. Framing Committee of the Global Water System Project. Humans transforming the global water system. Eos AGU Trans. 85, 513–514 (2004)

  6. United Nations Development Programme. HDR 2006—Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis (UNDP, 2006)

  7. Abell, R. et al. Freshwater ecoregions of the world: a new map of biogeographic units for freshwater biodiversity conservation. Bioscience 58, 403–414 (2008)

    Google Scholar 

  8. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2009. 1 〈http://www.iucnredlist.org〉 (2009)

  9. Convention on Biological Diversity. Text of the Convention on Biological Diversity 〈http://www.biodiv.org/convention/articles.asp〉 (2004)

  10. United Nations Environment Programme. Report of the third ad hoc intergovernmental and multi-stakeholder meeting on an intergovernmental science-policy platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services. UNEP/IPBES/3/3. (2010)

  11. Gleick, P. H. Global freshwater resources: soft-path solutions for the 21st century. Science 302, 1524–1528 (2003)

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Sullivan, C. & Meigh, J. Targeting attention on local vulnerabilities using an integrated index approach: the example of the Climate Vulnerability Index. Water Sci. Technol. 51, 69–78 (2005)

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Esty, D. et al. The 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index: Benchmarking National Environmental Stewardship (Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, 2005)

  14. Esty, D. et al. The Pilot 2006 Environmental Performance Index Report (Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy and CIESIN, 2006)

  15. Vörösmarty, C. J., Green, P., Salisbury, J. & Lammers, R. Global water resources: vulnerability from climate change and population growth. Science 289, 284–288 (2000)

    Google Scholar 

  16. Halpern, B. S. et al. A global map of human impact on marine ecosystems. Science 319, 948–952 (2008)

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Halpern, B. S. et al. Global priority areas for incorporating land–sea connections in marine conservation. Conser. Lett. 2, 189–196 (2009)

    Google Scholar 

  18. Sanderson, E. W. et al. The human footprint and the last of the wild. Bioscience 52, 891–904 (2002)

    Google Scholar 

  19. Food and Agriculture Organization. Water Monitoring: Mapping Existing Global Systems & Initiatives (FAO, 2006)

  20. Vörösmarty, C. J. Global water assessment and potential contributions from earth systems science. Aquat. Sci. 64, 328–351 (2002)

    Google Scholar 

  21. Dudgeon, D. et al. Freshwater biodiversity: importance, threats, status and conservation challenges. Biol. Rev. Camb. Philos. Soc. 81, 163–182 (2006)

    Google Scholar 

  22. Vörösmarty, C. J., Douglas, E. M., Green, P. A. & Revenga, C. Geospatial indicators of emerging water stress: an application to Africa. Ambio 34, 230–236 (2005)

    Google Scholar 

  23. Fekete, B. M., Vörösmarty, C. J. & Lammers, R. B. Scaling gridded river networks for macroscale hydrology: development, analysis, and control of error. Wat. Resour. Res. 37, 1955–1967 (2001)

    Google Scholar 

  24. US-Environmental Protection Agency. The Quality of Our Nation’s Waters. EPA-841-R-02–001 (US EPA, 2000)

  25. Ministry of Environmental Protection. The State of the Environment of China in 2008http://english.mep.gov.cn/News_service/news_release/200906/t20090618_152932.htm〉 (Ministry of Environmental Protection, The People’s Republic of China, 2009)

  26. UNEP GEMS/Water Programme. Water Quality for Ecosystem and Human Health 2nd edn (UNEP GEMS/Water Programme, 2008)

  27. Seitzinger, S. P., Harrison, J. A., Dumont, E., Beusen, A. H. W. & Bouwman, A. F. Sources and delivery of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus to the coastal zone: an overview of Global Nutrient Export from Watersheds (NEWS) models and their application. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 19, GB4S01 (2005)

    Google Scholar 

  28. World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Freshwater Biodiversity: a Preliminary Global Assessment. WCMC Biodiversity Series No. 8 (World Conservation Press, 1998)

  29. Palmer, M. A. & Filoso, S. Restoration of ecosystem services for environmental markets. Science 325, 575–576 (2009)

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. Ashley, R. & Cashman, A. The impacts of change on the long-term future demand for water sector infrastructure. In: Infrastructure to 2030: Telecom, Land Transport, Water and Electricity Ch. 5 (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2006)

    Google Scholar 

  31. WHO/UNICEF. Progress on Sanitation and Drinking-Water: 2010 Update. Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (World Health Organisation/UNICEF, 2010)

  32. Grey, D. & Sadoff, C. W. Water for Growth and Development. Thematic Documents of the IV World Water Forum (Comisión Nacional del Agua: México, 2006)

    Google Scholar 

  33. Dinda, S. Environmental Kuznets curve hypothesis: a survey. Ecol. Econ. 49, 431–455 (2004)

    Google Scholar 

  34. The Global Environmental Facility. Financing the Stewardship of Global Biodiversity (GEF, 2008)

  35. Butchart, S. H. M. et al. Global biodiversity: indicators of recent declines. Science 328, 1164–1168 (2010)

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  36. Clausen, R. & York, R. Global biodiversity decline of marine and freshwater fish: a cross-national analysis of economic, demographic, and ecological influences. Soc. Sci. Res. 37, 1310–1320 (2008)

    Google Scholar 

  37. Tockner K., Uehlinger U., Robinson C. T., eds. Rivers of Europe (Academic, 2009)

  38. Balian, E. V., Lévêque, C., Segers, H. & Martens, K. The freshwater animal diversity assessment: an overview of the results. Hydrobiologia 595, 627–637 (2008)

    Google Scholar 

  39. Ricciardi, A. & Rasmussen, J. B. Extinction rates of North American freshwater fauna. Conserv. Biol. 13, 1220–1222 (1999)

    Google Scholar 

  40. Kottelat, M. & Freyhof, J. Handbook of European Freshwater Fishes (Kottelat and Freyhof, 2007)

    Google Scholar 

  41. Jelks, H. L. et al. Conservation status of imperiled North American freshwater and diadromous fishes. Fisheries 33, 372–407 (2008)

    Google Scholar 

  42. Strayer, D. L. & Dudgeon, D. Freshwater biodiversity conservation: recent progress and future challenges. J. N. Am. Benthol. Soc. 29, 344–358 (2010)

    Google Scholar 

  43. Zalasiewicz, J. et al. Are we now living in the Anthropocene? GSA Today 18, 4–8 (2008)

    Google Scholar 

  44. Steffen, W., Crutzen, P. J. & McNeill, J. R. The Anthropocene: are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature? AMBIO 36, 614–621 (2007)

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  45. Brooks, T. M. et al. Global biodiversity conservation priorities. Science 313, 58–61 (2006)

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  46. Reid, W. V. et al. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: Ecosystems and Human Well-Being—Synthesis Report (World Resources Institute, 2005)

  47. Brown, O. & Crawford, A. Rising Temperatures, Rising Tensions: Climate Change and the Risk of Violent Conflict in the Middle East (International Institute for Sustainable Development, 2009)

    Google Scholar 

  48. World Commission on Dams. Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making (Earthscan, 2000)

  49. Arthington, A. H., Bunn, S. E., Poff, N. L. & Naiman, R. J. The challenge of providing environmental flow rules to sustain river ecosystems. Ecol. Appl. 16, 1311–1318 (2006)

    Google Scholar 

  50. The World Bank Country Classificationshttp://data.worldbank.org/about/country-classifications〉 (17 May 2010)

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

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.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

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

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Vörösmarty, C., McIntyre, P., Gessner, M. et al. Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity. Nature 467, 555–561 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature09440

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/nature09440

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing