Interactive maps reveal global water gap

World Water Map and Freshwater Initiative. Image: National Geographic and Utrecht University.

A brand-new digital worldwide "water map" aims to draw attention to the problems of water scarcity, and encourage future management strategies.

Human water use has risen dramatically. The demand in some areas of the world far exceeds what rivers and groundwater can supply. Growing populations and changes in industry are largely responsible for rising water consumption and we now extract 4,000 cubic kilometres of water annually - which is eight times more than a century ago.

The result is a water gap in an increasing number of places. Humans are using more water than the water cycle can provide, which threatens not only our own health, peace, and well-being, but also the health of ecosystems and wildlife.

Led by National Geographic Explorer Marc Bierkens, the water map is based on a global model developed at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Its purpose is to help us understand where and why water gaps arise, how climate change might aggravate them—and even how they might be managed.

"It all starts by making the invisible visible.”

2022 UN World Water Development Report

A water gap arises when human demand exceeds the renewable supply—from rivers, lakes, and shallow aquifers refreshed by rain.

The Utrecht model used in the water map calculates the available surface and groundwater in an area from whatever data are available on weather, soil, and vegetation. It also analyses the key drivers of water demand.

The water map can monitor alterations in water supply and demand over time. Although the demand is decreasing as - for example - crops change, coal plants are shut down, or towns and cities embrace conservation, overall the demand for water is still rising worldwide.

What the maps highlight is the fact that water gaps are regional, but they are now occurring on every continent. And the continents are connected.

The markets for both food and industrial goods are global. Water embedded in all those products—the water needed to grow or make them—travels the world. A water gap in one place can affect us all, and the foods and products we consume affect water availability elsewhere.

How do these maps help?

The maps enable us to identify hotspots where the supply and demand mismatch is most pronounced. The first step towards solving an issue is recognising it.

The data from the water maps are used by researchers around the world, and by institutions like NASA. Now you can explore the data too.

A hot tip from the Make Water Famous team is to visit the website and investigate the various regional water issues that combine to create a worldwide issue, starting in the area where you live.