New app teaches about the global water shortage

New app teaches about the global water shortage

21 Mar 2018

World population is growing fast, and climate change is increasing drought in many regions. Even now, humans are using one and a half planets’ worth of resources every year. We need action to help people embrace the principles of sustainable development in their daily lives.

One of those actions is the initiative launched by two Aalto University hydrologists, who want to inspire people to explore the future of our planet with their Global Water Scarcity Atlas app. The project is called WASCO, and it is headed by Assistant Professor Matti Kummu and Postdoctoral Researcher Joseph Guillaume with Key Project funding from the Academy of Finland.

Kummu and Guillaume have studied ways to fight water scarcity and wanted to communicate them better to the general public. The app they are developing provides a tool for people to find out how their different choices affect the global water situation. They wanted an app that looks good and is easy to use. “By creating an online app available to all, we can popularise the subject much better than we could by writing about it in a scientific journal,” Guillaume says.

Apulaisprofessori Matti Kummu (vas.) ja tutkijatohtori Joseph Guillaume.

Assistant Professor Matti Kummu (left) and Postdoctoral Researcher Joseph Guillaume want to make basic data on water scarcity easily available through their Global Water Scarcity Atlas app. A view of the app, currently in test use, is shown on the computer screen.

Previously, Kummu has been awarded Postdoctoral Researcher funding by the Academy of Finland for his research on the identification of global water scarcity trends and the ways to adapt to it. The project is also linked to the project “From Failand to Winland”, funded by the Strategic Research Council, which explores research and co-creation efforts in the area of Finnish energy and food security.

Visualising the past, the present and the future

The Global Water Scarcity Atlas will have a variety of functions that illustrate the situation in different regions. The app contains a full world map with data from the years 1900−2010.

With the app, users can explore how population and water scarcity have evolved over the years, or where water scarcity, water overconsumption, excess population or various combinations of these problems are found. The app will also feature detailed maps of the regions suffering from water scarcity, showing, for example, the locations of irrigation systems. The data can be explored at the level of months or years, and all data are freely available for downloading.

The app features detailed explanations of the various concepts employed in the processing of the data and helps to see how the concepts are linked to each other.

In addition, the app will contain numerous potential future scenarios up until the year 2050 or 2100. They will be formed in interaction with our own actions, those of others, and external factors, such as the world economic situation. “The app will contain massive amounts of data,” the two scientists say.

Collaboration brings experts together

The project involves close cooperation between the two scientists, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), and a Helsinki-based startup company Lucify. While IIASA provides the hydrologists with data based on global models for the app’s future scenarios, Lucify is responsible for the visualisation and technical implementation of the Atlas. “We work as a team with IIASA and Lucify, and we’re in touch on a daily basis during the most intensive working periods,” Guillaume says.

In their own research, Kummu and Guillaume have mostly focused on the past and on how we have ended up in the current situation. IIASA, on the other hand, has models on the future of the global water situation. “In this project, our aim is to combine the past with the future and create something that has never been done before”, Kummu explains.

The two scientists say that the greatest benefit of the collaboration is that it brings experts together. “Thanks to our collaboration, we can do things that we couldn’t manage on our own,” Guillaume says.

Cutting down water consumption is possible

Kummu and Guillaume say that, even in Finland, it would be possible to decrease water consumption. Direct and indirect consumption of water in Finland totals 3,000−5,000 litres a day per person, but only a small fraction goes to drinking or washing – the majority is consumed by food production. “The best ways to cut down water consumption is to choose vegetarian food and reduce the amount of food that goes to waste,” Guillaume explains.

Increasing the efficiency of irrigation systems and the use of fertilisers may also help save water. One example is the drip irrigation method, where water is allowed to drip directly onto plants: it can save up to 80 per cent of water compared to conventional irrigation systems.

“There are large regions in Africa where food production could be tripled without increasing the consumption of natural resources. In Europe, the greatest potential is in the changing of diets, while in Africa and Asia, the promise lies in the development of better irrigation techniques,” Kummu explains.

A screenshot of the Global Water Scarcity Atlas app developed by two Aalto University scientists

A screenshot of the Global Water Scarcity Atlas app developed by two Aalto University scientists. The app is expected to become available in August 2018.

One of the most important features of the Global Water Scarcity Atlas according to Kummu is that it helps people with different backgrounds explore their own region: how they could alleviate water scarcity and how much food they could produce with the same resources. “We wanted to emphasise the interactive features of the atlas to enable users to explore and test how different actions impact the future outlook, and get feedback on their actions.”

Despite everything, water scarcity also opens up opportunities to create something new. As Guillaume says, it is a great incentive to boost efficiency. Many regions are already investing in water technology, and the scarcity of a vital natural resource also breeds innovation.

Water scarcity is often considered from the perspective of a single country, but Kummu and Guillaume are researching global water reserves. They point out that the choices we make in Finland also affect other countries. “A significant proportion of the food imported to Finland comes from countries that suffer from drought,” Kummu says.

Towards increased awareness

The purpose of the WASCO project is to provide extensive background information for everyone working with the issue. The two scientists think they have succeeded if the Atlas makes people think about the shortage of water.

Population growth is the major cause of water shortage. A larger number of people means more demand for natural resources. Guillaume says that everyone should think about how they can influence the way we consume the Earth’s resources and share them with others.

“I believe that sufficient background knowledge can turn into an insight of what it means to live on a planet where a certain amount of water is shared between all inhabitants. Things you do here can have a considerable impact somewhere else without you even realising it. However, we don’t want to be too negative, and for this reason, the app introduces alternative actions that can change the future. We want to give people hope. After all, this is a manageable challenge that just needs some concerted efforts,” Guillaume says.

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Original text in Finnish and photo by Arto Suominen
Main image: 

The aim of the Academy of Finland’s Key Project funding scheme “Forging Ahead with Research” is to increase the societal impact of scientific research with a targeted call to promote the utilisation of research. The funding opportunity is especially geared towards early-career researchers and towards promoting their opportunities to conduct independent research and utilise research results.

The aim of the scheme is to promote active collaboration between the research community (universities and research institutes) on the one hand, and end-users of research (business and industry) on the other. Projects funded will aim to promote the more effective use of research results through experiments and pilots. The Academy of Finland awarded a total of 30 million euros to 101 projects.

Last modified 22 Mar 2018
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