Alternative water futures

Options Magazine, Summer 2012: 

IIASA is bringing its experience in scenario development and global assessments to a new partnership with UN-Water to explore alternative futures for the world’s water and its use to 2050

2 reports

2 reports

hold for the world’s water resources? According to the United Nations World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP), we are simply not sure. More than ten years ago, under the sponsorship of the World Water Council, researchers developed a set of global water scenarios to address that question. Since then technology and socioeconomic conditions in the world have altered dramatically, both within and outside the water sector, and change continues to accelerate. So now new water scenarios are urgently needed, scenarios which, IIASA’s Dr. Bill Cosgrove points out, must incorporate the key driving forces of today such as climate change, globalization, and security.

Managing the world’s water resources is an increasingly complex challenge. Yet, says IIASA’s Director/CEO Prof. Pavel Kabat, we know less and less about water resources and how they are being used. This is creating new risks and uncertainties for global water management. In response to this challenge, IIASA and UN-Water are conducting a World Water Scenarios Project to provide a set of alternative futures of the world’s water and its use to 2050.

While scenarios are not projections, forecasts, or predictions, they provide a useful tool for identifying a possible range of future outcomes. Where future water resources are concerned, scenarios are particularly useful because of the difficulties of gaining a long-term perspective. While it would seem logical to use forecasting techniques to estimate future water use and water resources, in practice this is not possible. While forecasts may be reliable over the short term, predictive forecasts become untrustworthy over months, years, and decades due to our currently limited understanding of human and ecological processes. Moreover, future water conditions will depend very largely on human decisions that are yet to be made.

Through developing a second generation of global water scenarios to 2050, the World Water Scenarios Project aims to build more robustness into decision making on water and its use. In the first phase of this process, researchers set out to analyze the evolution of ten major external forces (driver) that have direct and indirect consequences for water resources. These ten drivers include agriculture, climate change and variability, demography, economy, and security and politics. Cross-sectoral qualitative and quantitative analysis of the combined impact of these drivers will be used to inform the next phase of the World Water Scenarios Project.

IIASA joined the project at the start of this second phase and currently hosts the project secretariat under the joint leadership of Prof. Kabat and Dr. Cosgrove. Building on its experience in scenario development and recent work with the Global Energy Assessment, IIASA will partner with UN-Water to produce a set of world water scenarios for the World Water Forum to be held in South Korea in 2015.

The approach for developing this new set of scenarios involves an iterative process of building qualitative scenarios and constructing simulation models, employing a Scenario Focus Group (SFG) which will engage a globally representative group of decision makers supported by scenario experts, stakeholders, data experts, and modelers. Some of the diversity of the alternative futures for the global water situation has already been identified for the SFG in a small- scale, preliminary exploration completed in 2012. The “Five Stylized Scenarios” report highlights five possible trajectories for the world water system to 2050. These five scenarios—for example “techno-world,” in which the pace of technological innovation accelerates but water resources become an increasingly limiting factor for future economic growth—offer plausible evolutions from the current situation depending on how the major driving forces develop and interact.

According to IIASA water researcher Dr. David Wiberg, “Building on this earlier work, the integrated picture that will result from the World Water Scenarios Project will play an essential role in identifying coherent sets of policy and management actions that can help achieve the sustainable development and use of water resources at the global, regional, national, and subnational levels.

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Last edited: 16 December 2013


Bill Cosgrove

Guest Senior Research Scholar


T +43(0) 2236 807 588


Cosgrove CE, Cosgrove WJ (2012)

The Dynamics of Global Water Futures: Driving Forces 2011–2050. Report on the findings of Phase One of the UNESCO-WWAP Water Scenarios Project to 2050. Global Water Futures 2050:02, UNESCO, Paris, France.

Gallopin GC (2012)

Five Stylized Scenarios. Global Water Futures 2050:01, UNESCO, Paris, France.

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