BOSTON, MA, Feb. 17, 2013 -- With nearly 20 percent of the United States experiencing an extreme drought, the damage from Hurricane Sandy estimated at $65 billion and farmers in Canada's Prairies struggling with the effects of 2011's devastating flooding, the importance of water security in North America is impossible to overstate.
At the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan, director Howard Wheater and his team use the Saskatchewan River Basin as a large-scale case study to generate the science underpinning the policies and practices governments, consumers and water users need to respond to rapid environmental change.
"The world is facing a crisis in water unsustainability and is just waking up to that idea," says Wheater, a world-renowned scientist who holds a Canada Excellence Research Chair in in Water Security. "There's a need for new science to understand environmental change, because rapid environmental change is happening -- not just the climate but the way we are managing the land."
In Texas, where 97 percent of the state is suffering from a record-breaking drought that is cutting off water to rice farmers, shrinking cattle herds and raising beef prices, legislators feel the pressure to find solutions to water shortages. The policy options for Texas and jurisdictions around the world that are suffering the same pressures will come from researchers such as Wheater and his team at the Global Institute for Water Security, founded in 2011.
"We need to take new approaches to managing uncertain water futures, making science available to policyholders and building dialogue with stakeholders too," says Wheater. "The major problems are all around the governance of these issues: they're all to do with people and decisions."
The uniqueness of the Institute is its focus on bringing together the best in global science around water security as well as social science that will build policy-relevant tools.
The Saskatchewan River Basin Project, which includes a network of world-class hydro-ecological observatories, forms part of the World Climate Research Programme and examines the key water resource for Canada's Prairie provinces. In one of the most extreme climates in the world, the basin supports 80 percent of Canada's agriculture and important mineral resources, and provides a great example of the global challenges of balancing the needs of the environment with food, energy and water security in a transboundary basin, set against a background of rapid climate warming. The water supply generates hydro power and supports much of Canada's irrigation, but is also vital for potash mines and oil and gas development. It is already fully allocated in parts and is threatened by degrading water quality and damaging floods and drought.
Wheater's research into large-scale water monitoring and modelling is helping global organizations, including NASA, improve their tools for climate change projection and risk management. NASA is using data from the Institute's boreal forest site to develop an airborne remote sensing tool to measure soil moisture -- its AirMOSS project. Similarly, NASA is using data from another of the Institute's sites to develop a new satellite mission to measure soil moisture.
These techniques will support better forecasting and prediction models for land and water systems, to help governments, policymakers and land users understand and manage environmental change and agricultural water systems.
"Water futures depend on what society chooses," Wheater says. "We're providing the tools to help society make those choices."