The Water Gap: A new, simplified way of thinking about the world’s water problems

Eric Suesz Eric Suesz March 22, 2023

4 min read

As we all know, the first step in solving a problem is understanding the scope of the problem. But getting a good understanding of the state of the world’s water problems can be a daunting task.

The UN has led the way in collecting data around water and sharing it as broadly as possible to help drive change. They’ve created 17 Sustainable Development Goals to help guide the way. SDG Goal #6 is “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”.

’Seriously off-track’

Today, the UN is marking World Water Day with a gathering in New York hosted by the Netherlands and Tajikistan. The UN’s message this year: we are “seriously off-track” to meet SDG 6 by 2030.

Every drop matters. Keep the conversation going by downloading the UN’s activation kit.

They’re not the only ones raising the alarm on this World Water Day. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body of leading climate scientists, have recently released their Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report, which urgently lays out the case that now may be our last chance to commit to meaningful change that will help us preserve the planet. There’s no denying that things appear to be looking grim. But we can’t let that stop us.

Minding the Water Gap

Of course, if our goals are too high or seem unachievable, we may become overwhelmed by the task at hand and throw up our collective hands in frustration. It may help us to think about the problem in different ways – to reframe the conversation in as many ways as possible so that the thrust of the message connects with more and more constituencies.

Just in time for World Water Day 2023, the National Geographic Society has released an excellent resource to help frame the conversation in a new way. They call it the “Water Gap”.

In collaboration with Utrecht University and Esri, they’ve launched the World Water Map. It identifies water availability hotspots and provides high-quality visualizations that compare global freshwater supply and demand using 40+ years of historical data. Simply put, it calculates the available water in an area and the key drivers of water demand. The difference is the water gap. The goal is to close those gaps.

Pull the slider to compare water demand vs the water gap. (2019 data)

The 22 hotspots it lists are facing crisis-level water scarcity. This data-driven mental device can help us collectively identify where we can make the most progress on the issues of supply while at the same time providing a future-forward outlook on the ever-increasing demand for water. Thinking about it in this simplified, supply-and-demand way can help us see the trade-offs between supply and demand.

How is it going where you live? You can enter your location in the search box and view the data from the last 40+ years.

Me and you and everyone we know

The biggest hurdle to surmount in this battle for better water for all is the feeling of powerlessness. We can’t let apathy set in. We have to keep reminding ourselves – and everyone who will listen – that protecting our water is a shared responsibility that requires trade-offs and compromise.

How can we help? Obviously, technology can help.

If the first step in solving the problem is understanding it, data must be our best friend. Our software consumes data to help companies uncover more and more ways to use less water, which has the fortunate side effect of also helping them save money. One way that we can help is by continuing to build and promote tools within our software that incrementally helps organizations across the water lifecyle use less – and save more – water.

But we can help in other ways, too. Today, Autodesk announced that we have joined Xylem, Veolia, The Coca Cola Foundation and other industry leaders in committing over $11 billion in water innovation over the next five years.

“Autodesk is uniquely positioned to support global water experts working to ensure resilient infrastructure. When I think of how vital water is, we can’t afford to waste a moment,” said Colby Manwaring, VP of Innovyze at Autodesk. “We are proud to work alongside other leading organizations who have committed to finding innovative solutions to the world’s water challenges. This kind of opportunity, rooted in data with meaningful insights, has the potential for impact at scale.”

Wanted: water influencers

How can you help? We can all individually help by making the most essential ingredient in our lives a regular topic of conversation in our day-to-day lives. Trumpet the successes you see in your communities and point out the disparities that still need to be addressed.

You can get started with the first few drops by registering your own commitment to achieve the UN goals. You can also share positive messages to help bring about a change in mindset. You can also investigate on your own how water is being used or abused where you live.

Others ways you can join this water crusade by sharing positive messages to help bring about a change in mindset:

Ultimately, changing our mindset will require each of us to sacrifice something convenient that we enjoy about the status quo, but there’s no way to get around the simple truth that compromise will be required for meaningful change to occur.

Fill up on more of the One Water blog

By clicking subscribe, I agree to receive the One Water blog newsletter and acknowledge the Autodesk Privacy Statement.