Three water atlases


Akvo volunteer Winona Azure explores some great sources of water information

Top: fragment of a map in the Africa Water Atlas (page 6).

Water is not just a solitary resource like iron ore or wood – to make use of it, you must understand that it is interconnected. Not only does all of life depend on it, but water’s in a constant cycle of movement and change – and the rights to it are often in dispute. As water resource professionals, it’s our job to see this bigger picture in order to make the best, practical, economic decisions to ensure this resource is properly and fairly utilised. If water extractions are not done intelligently, there’s great risk of depleting a region or people’s freshwater, contributing to economic and military conflict, or creating food insecurity through mismanaged agricultural irrigation.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), has compiled three extensively researched atlases that target water resource issues in Africa, Latin American & the Caribbean, and South and South East Asia. With freshwater on the decline, as populations worldwide increase, we could all use such a goldmine of information.

Africa Water Atlas (2010)


The awesome Africa Water Atlas (2010). 326 pages. (you can download it at no cost here (PDF))

The most massive of the three Atlases is the Africa Water Atlas. With 326 pages, containing 224 maps, 104 satellite images, and 500 graphics and photos, this atlas is not messing around. Not only is there a representation of the quality, quantity, and distribution/access of water resources (basins, aquifers, rivers, lakes, wetlands, estuaries), it covers complex issues (irrigation, pollution, drought, competing interests, climate change, water-borne disease) complete with case histories to help it all make sense. It was produced at the request of the African Ministers Council on Water (AMCOW) and made in cooperation with the African Union, European Union, US Department of State, United States Geological Survey and other collaborators.

Six sections of Africa (Northern, Eastern, Central, Western, Southern, and Western Indian Ocean Island) get a thorough examination in addition to each and every African country. Included are water politics i.e. how private investments can help fund badly needed infrastructure, such as electricity, irrigation, industry and tourism. (page 9)

Wisely, the atlas realises the interconnectedness of water resources in examining water-affected topics like water and poverty, water and population, water and gender, water and irrigation, as well as water and transport. It also takes a look at historical water levels/conditions to explain current water events to suggest future solutions. The progress towards the Millennium Development Goals is discussed, and the 4-pages of fine print references at the end of the atlas are enough to make any water resource professional salivate.

“In urban areas, water is not only scarce for the poor, but costs up to five times more compared to affluent neighbourhoods.”- H.E. Jean Ping, Chairperson of the African Union Commission

The Latin America and the Caribbean Atlas of our Changing Environment (2010)


Latin America and the Caribbean: Atlas of our Changing Environment

Representing the most biologically diverse regions on the planet, this atlas is nearly as beefy (313 pages) as the Africa atlas and is divided into three parts: the geographic overview of natural resources, the main environmental issues, and changes that have occurred both directly and indirectly from human activity. The Latin American/Caribbean regions are unique in that rainforest destruction has been frequent and at neck-breaking speed due to economic development models.

While this atlas is not solely focused on water resources, the extreme environmental changes are important to understand how water resources are affected. The satellite images alone, showing the before and after conditions, can give resource managers an idea of how quickly their own project area may be affected one day. Some of the topics covered are: impacts of mining, deforestation, melting of glaciers, land degradation, coastal and marine pressures, glacial melting, water pollution, water availability, loss of vegetative cover, soil degradation, and over-fishing.

FreshWater under Threat: South Asia/South East Asia (2009)

Left: Freshwater Under Threat: South Asia (2009), 44 pages. Right: Freshwater under Threat: South East Asia (2009) 44 pages.

The South Asian countries covered in the South Asia report include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Home to half a billion of the world’s poor with 95% of freshwater use going to agriculture (higher than the world average of 70%).

The South East atlas primarily covers the Mekong River Basin, which drains a total catchment area of 795,000 km2 within China (Yunnan Province), Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam. This huge basin is not affected by water shortages or open conflict, but rather it is threatened by development pressures and transboundary issues. The nice thing about the Asia atlases is the focus on management and policy. They compare methods and use a smart and sophisticated Vulnerability Index (VI) (page 37 of the South Asia atlas) to quantify where the weaknesses lie in a water system based on four factors: resource stress, development pressures, ecological insecurity, and management challenges.

“Maldives has achieved remarkable success in rainwater harvesting. It has been estimated that 25 per cent of its population currently depends on groundwater for drinking, while the rest of the population uses rainwater and desalinated water for this purpose, and groundwater for other purposes.” Page XI, South Asia report.

Vulnerability index

The Vulnerability Index method is expanded upon in UNEP’s short 28 page document created in 2009: Methodologies Guidelines: Vulnerability Assessment of Freshwater Resources to Environmental Change. It offers a model to quantify where a region’s water resource vulnerabilities lie, based on “1) exposure of a water resources system to stressors at the river basin scale; and 2) capacity of the ecosystem and society to cope with the threats to the healthy functionality of a water system.” (page 11 of the pdf). The guide takes you step-by-step with colourful graphs/charts in analysing your project area, including an analysis of management methods and case studies. The usage of the guide is already increasing in West Asia, East Europe, and Latin America & the Caribbean.

Finally, an additional sympathetic perk shared by all of the UNEP atlases and guidelines:“This publication may be reproduced in whole or in part and in any form for educational or non-profit purposes without special permission from the copyright holder, provided acknowledgement of the source is made. UNEP and the authors would appreciate receiving a copy of any publication that uses this report as a source.” Now that’s what I call sharing the wealth. Thanks UNEP.

Winona Azure is a research volunteer with Akvo.