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01.10.2010

Nature 467, 555-561 (30 September 2010) | doi:10.1038/nature09440; Received 21 January 2010; Accepted 19 August 2010; Published online 29 September 2010; Corrected 30 September 2010


Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity



C. J. Vörösmarty1,10, P. B. McIntyre2,10,11, M. O. Gessner3, D. Dudgeon4, A. Prusevich5, P. Green1, S. Glidden5, S. E. Bunn6, C. A. Sullivan7, C. Reidy Liermann8 & P. M. Davies9




  1. The Environmental CrossRoads Initiative, City University of New York, The City College of New York, New York, New York 10035, USA

  2. School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109, USA

  3. Department of Aquatic Ecology, Eawag: Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, and Institute of Integrative Biology (IBZ), ETH Zurich, 8600 Dübendorf, Switzerland and Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB), 16775 Stechlin, Germany

  4. Division of Ecology and Biodiversity, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, China

  5. Water Systems Analysis Group, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire 03824, USA

  6. Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University, Nathan, Queensland 4111, Australia

  7. School of Environmental Science and Management, Southern Cross University, New South Wales 2480, Australia

  8. School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

  9. Centre of Excellence in Natural Resource Management, The University of Western Australia, Albany 6330, Australia

  10. These authors contributed equally to this work.

  11. Present address: Center for Limnology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA.


Correspondence to: C. J. Vörösmarty1,10 Email: contact@riverthreat.net




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Protecting the world’s freshwater resources requires diagnosing threats over a broad range of scales, from global to local. Here we present the first worldwide synthesis to jointly consider human and biodiversity perspectives on water security using a spatial framework that quantifies multiple stressors and accounts for downstream impacts. We find that nearly 80% of the world’s population is exposed to high levels of threat to water security. Massive investment in water technology enables rich nations to offset high stressor levels without remedying their underlying causes, whereas less wealthy nations remain vulnerable. A similar lack of precautionary investment jeopardizes biodiversity, with habitats associated with 65% of continental discharge classified as moderately to highly threatened. The cumulative threat framework offers a tool for prioritizing policy and management responses to this crisis, and underscores the necessity of limiting threats at their source instead of through costly remediation of symptoms in order to assure global water security for both humans and freshwater biodiversity.


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