What's the importance of a system-based approach for water resource management?

"All of the water on our planet has been here for some time, it is just recycled over and over again. The fact that water resources are a closed system means that how we handle our water supply is of utmost importance. And, since water is essential to most life on our planet, the quality of our water is a critical element for our sustainability."

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All of the water on our planet has been here for some time, it is just recycled over and over again. The fact that water resources are a closed system means that how we handle our water supply is of utmost importance. And, since water is essential to most life on our planet, the quality of our water is a critical element for our sustainability.

Water is also one of our more fragile resources, with water pollution and a lack of safe drinking water attributed to the death of two million people yearly worldwide. In the developing world, most sewage goes directly into the water supply untreated, and tainted water is responsible for roughly 80 percent of illnesses in poorer countries. In the developed world, pollution from industry, roads and agriculture has a huge impact on the quality of our water supply, where one drop of motor oil is capable of contaminating one million drops of water.

Water is also a very finite resource that faces significant global shortages worldwide. Forty percent of the world has no access to clean water and sanitation, while in the developed world we have been using our water reserves at a much faster pace than they can be regenerated. A worldwide water shortage is projected with the current pace of demand outstripping supply in many regions within our lifetimes.

Mapping Water

GIS and engineering design tools have long played a role in water distribution and wastewater management. The physics of water distribution require detail on the third dimension, with water following gravity’s pull. The visualization of water in 3D space helps trace our networks and gives us a better handle on the efficiency of our systems. Sophisticated models allow us to discover water loss to be stemmed from aging and leaking systems.

Scientists have harnessed sensors and created systems to better understand the lifecycle of water. Climate models are a critical component of the supply picture. Understanding underwater storage, the groundwater discharge and recharge in aquifers, is also an important element in the big picture. The water cycle is complex, with water taking the form of liquid, solid and vapor, and it takes a sophisticated model to understand the movement across geography and between states.

The monitoring of water quality is another area where significant inroads are being made to better understand the existence and origin of contaminants and the effect of contaminants on human and environmental health. Recent studies in our urban centers indicate that trace amounts of pharmaceuticals can be found in our treated water. There’s some concern that this water quality and the existence of such contaminants as the female hormone estrogen are to be blamed for such things as sexless frogs and fish. Clearly we need to understand the origin and implication of contaminant to ensure the safety of our water resources and the protection of human health.

System of Systems Approach

The above focus areas and technologies do not operate alone, although they’re parsed separately into different systems. There are interdependencies between water supply, distribution and water quality. There are also connections to be made between our local water systems and services and larger regional watersheds and distribution networks.

A system of systems approach to water resource management makes a great deal of sense, particularly in light of the increasing pressure on this vital resource. The idea here is to pool the resources and capabilities of the individual systems to create a much larger system, with new levels of analysis and understanding than simply the sum of all the separate parts.

Canada’s National Land and Water Information Service is an excellent example of such an approach. NLWIS provides an interactive web-based delivery of maps, data and tools for sustainability planning. It’s the largest such system that I’m aware of, and they’re also working on a countrywide Water Atlas. The NLWIS framework drives policy decisions, and it’s something that can be built upon as more data is amassed and as we gain a greater understanding of the interdependencies between different elements of our water systems.

A system-based approach is the best way to tackle the pending global water emergency. The framework that is NLWIS provides the right mix of elements, as there are multiple entry points for different user groups. The open availability of data provides the potential for broader third-party involvement and partnerships with academic institutions, non-governmental organizations and industry groups. The scale and scope of the water problem will require broad research and policy alliances in order to understand the linkages between water, soil, climate, health, environment and biodiversity.

Further Reading

The One Drop Foundation

Bentley Water

Is Water the Next Oil? by Rohini Nilekani, Yale Global, May 2007

Global Water Shortage Looms in New Century

National Land and Water Information Service


About Matt Ball
Matt Ball

Matt has been promoting the application of sensors, systems, models and simulation for the better stewardship of our planet for the past fifteen years. The first ten years of that span were as editor of GeoWorld magazine and show manager of the GeoTec Event. The past five have been as a founder of Vector1 Media, with publications Sensors & Systems, Informed Infrastructure and Asia Surveying & Mapping. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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