As the world faces growing water security challenges, experts are calling for better monitoring of the availability, quality and use of water, and its inclusion in the UN's Sustainable Development Goals as a key issue in the post-2015 development agenda.
Human activities, such as building dams and agricultural irrigation, they say, have fundamentally altered the global water system, threatening ecosystems and a steady supply of fresh water. But a lack of scientific data and monitoring mean there is still no effective global governance of this key resource.
The Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015, focus narrowly on drinking water and sanitation for human health, but ignore global water quantity and quality standards for personal use, agriculture and healthy ecosystems, argue scientists from the Global Water System Project (GWSP).
Experts will meet this week (212–4 May) in Bonn, Germany, to bring together global efforts on water research to help set scientific foundations for a common vision for the sustainable use and international governance of water.
The conference, Water in the Anthropocene, is organised by the international research initiative, GWSP.
It will showcase research conducted on the global water system over the past decade and recommend priorities for decision-makers in the areas of earth system science and management of water.
"It will summarise past scientific achievements and proceed to conceptualise future research, which includes direct partnerships with policy and decision-makers," János Bogárdi, senior advisor to GWSP, tells SciDev.Net.
The findings will feed into the 2013 Budapest Water Summit in Hungary in October, where "a multi-stakeholder crowd will discuss how water-related goals can be formulated and made an integral part of the Sustainable Development Goals", Bogárdi says.
Anik Bhaduri, executive officer of GWSP, tells SciDev.Net that the task of simply extending the Millennium Development Goals into the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly in relation to water, is not simple, given how human activities have transformed the global water system.
According to GWSP experts, one of the biggest challenges is access to reliable data on water use, with most governments unwilling to share such information.
Calling for more scientific research and better governance, the GWSP experts note that authoritative scientific determinations of how much water humans can draw from the environment without crossing a 'tipping point' threshold beyond which ecosystems would collapse, are still missing.
"We may have one hydrological cycle in the world, but we do not have one governance system to avoid its collapse," Bogárdi warns.
To achieve better water management, GWSP is developing international water quality guidelines for aquatic ecosystems, and has developed a digital water atlas for global water systems.