By Rob Jordan

What does drought in Kansas have to do with under-utilized groundwater in Sub-Saharan Africa? Potentially a lot, according to a new study by researchers with the Global Freshwater Initiative (GFI), a program of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

The study, published in the journal Water Resources Research, is the first to systematically analyze and classify water crises around the world. It finds that water systems have a limited set of patterns or “syndromes,” which can be classified into one of four categories – unsustainability, vulnerability, chronic scarcity or adaptation. These syndromes have their root causes in just a few factors that influence demand, supply, infrastructure and governance – a finding that challenges long-held views that freshwater issues require highly individualized solutions.

“Because water problems are local, there is a tendency to think and study each region from scratch,” said the study’s lead author Veena Srinivasan, a former Stanford postdoctoral scholar now at the Pacific Institute. “People tend to be deep experts on western water issues or water issues in the Florida Everglades or northern China. This makes it hard to look for transferable lessons.”

The study suggests that “there are not countless types of water crises, even though they may have evolved differently,” said co-author Steven Gorelick, director of GFI and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute.

This realization promises a future in which solutions can be transferred among regions. “It helps us to identify the key question that we should be addressing in order to address the freshwater crises that affect the globe,” said co-author Buzz Thompson, co-director of the Stanford Woods Institute.

The GFI study involved careful reading, coding and pattern-hunting among papers on 22 water crises from the Yellow River in China to the Aral Sea in Yemen. The papers cover a range of freshwater problems from over-extraction and long-term groundwater decline to chronic scarcity due to under-utilization of available water resources. Every situation related to one or more issues: supply, demand, governance and infrastructure.

The study also looked for more universal ways of measuring outcomes. “We need to express water resources outcomes in terms of human well-being outcomes,” Srinivasan said. “For too long, water scientists have been content with describing patterns in ways that are internal to the discipline - more runoff, less runoff, peak flows, ratios of water availability to water use, etcetera.”

Looking at common patterns holds the key to identifying underlying factors and causal pathways that transcend borders. This, in turn, promises solutions that can be applied to multiple water problems and help prevent them in the future.

Could the massive groundwater depletion that is currently occurring in India and China have been predicted 50 years ago? What will these regions look like 50 years from now? If rural electrification occurs in the absence of groundwater regulation, rational farmers are going to put wells in and groundwater depletion is likely to occur within a few decades. Has this happened before? In attempting to answer questions such as these, hydrological models rarely consider economic fundamentals or resource governance. Similarly, narrow disciplinary approaches to water problems lead to limited perspectives. Economists tend to find that resources are underpriced, while institutional analysts point to difficulties with enforcement and hydrologists suggest boosting recharge. The GFI study suggests that water resources researchers must examine all underlying drivers to better predict water availability.

“Our hope is that understanding the nature of these crises can lead to individual but generalizable policy prescriptions for each syndrome,” Gorelick said.

The GFI will use the study’s findings to help construct quantitative policy evaluation models that can be used to develop and test interventions aimed at creating sustainable freshwater supply systems.  The goal of these models is to explore potential tools such as water markets, taxes, quotas, and changes to water rights structures that might put water crisis-prone regions on a more sustainable path. “This is a roadmap for thinking about the global challenge that is manageable and solvable,” Thompson said.

Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Eric Lambin and Woods-affiliated professor Scott Rozelle also contributed to this study.