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IonE’s Global Water Initiative makes waves

Water: It’s everywhere, yet we hardly think about it unless we’re inundated by it or running out. The Institute on the Environment’s Global Water Initiative, under the direction of lead scientist Kate Brauman, is working to ensure a safe and sufficient water supply worldwide.

Based on her work with GWI, Brauman was recently invited to contribute as a lead author to the Global Assessment of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a program of the United Nations in the vein of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. At a weeklong meeting in Bonn, Germany, in August, 150 scientists convened to start outlining and designing a guide for policy-makers and planners around the world on the state of natural systems and communities and how to protect them going forward.

“This is one way governments are starting to talk and agree about environmental solutions,” said Brauman, who will author a section on status and trends in water regulation and other benefits that nature provides to people across 11 global biomes. Brauman’s contribution will draw on the work of College of Biological Sciences professor and IonE fellow Jeannine Cavender-Bares, who is also involved with the assessment.

How did Brauman find herself potentially influencing water management around the world? Through a steady stream of research, collaboration and delivery of products that can help communities and businesses use water effectively.

As far back as 2007, Brauman authored a paper that has guided academics and practitioners towards more effectively managing water quality and quantity by managing landscapes.

By 2014, Brauman’s research on global irrigation patterns led to a commitment by a consortium of sugarcane growers to more effectively use an estimated 500 billion gallons of water a year.

Last year, Brauman and international partners from the Global Water Policy Project, The Nature Conservancy and the Center for Environmental Systems Research developed a water scarcity map that zoomed in on water availability in watersheds around the world at unprecedented resolution. The finer scale gives water managers and policy-makers a more accurate picture of their local water situation.

This year, World Wildlife Fund incorporated the water scarcity map into its water risk filter, a tool that allows businesses to evaluate their water risk — the amount of water needed to operate and the cost of not having an adequate supply.

“If a business is deciding whether to expand into a new market, for example, water is a factor,” says Brauman. “With the integration of the water scarcity map into the water risk filter, businesses can look at the local watershed data and know more accurately what water availability will be.”

With business comes investors who are also looking to GWI for guidance. Brauman was recently asked to define a good investment by the nonprofit CERES, an organization working to promote investments in sustainable practices around the world. Brauman says there is no pat answer, but among the things to consider are how much water is available in that particular location and how effectively is it being used.

The challenge to answering that, she says, is that there isn’t a lot of reporting about those considerations from companies or communities. “Twenty-five years ago, no one was recording their carbon footprint. Now it’s standard practice. We need to begin compiling similar data on water use.”

To that end, Brauman is collaborating with IonE’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise, which has been developing tools to track carbon emissions and water use in agriculture, specifically meat and ethanol production. “We’d like to be able to say to consumers or investors, ‘Hamburger from this place uses less water than that place,’” says Brauman. “Water scarcity isn’t the same everywhere within the U.S. By partnering with NiSE we can build on their work mapping the supply chain connecting corn in a field to animal feed in a specific place, and we can calculate how big that specific water impact is.”

So when the U.N. came calling for an expert to explain global trends in water regulation and ecosystem services, Brauman was up to the task.

“I love geeking out with water data, really diving into the numbers to understand what they mean,” says Brauman. “But understanding user needs is equally critical. If we’re not answering the right questions, then we’re not making an impact. Seeing GWI’s work integrated into a wide range of applications and used by lots of practitioners is really validating because it means we’re asking — and answering — the right questions.”

Listen to Brauman discussing her research on water scarcity on the Matt Townsend Show and WTIP North Shore Community Radio.

Photo by Andrew F Kazmierski (iStock)

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