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Description of the GWSP Digital Water Atlas Project Print E-mail
Written by Marcel Endejan   

The Digital Water Atlas started as one of the fast-track activities of the Global Water System Project (GWSP) that were initiated at the first meeting of the Scientific Steering Committee of the GWSP in February 2005. This introduction gives a brief description of the aims of the Digital Water Atlas and the process of its implementation.


How are human actions changing the Global Water System and what are the environmental and socio-economic feedbacks arising from the anthropogenic changes in the Global Water System? To answer this key overarching question of the GWSP, the activity list of the project includes the mapping and assessment of the current and past state of the Global Water System (activity 4.1, see GWSP Framework Document) and the preparation of maps that depict globally significant areas of change and vulnerability in the Global Water System (cross-cutting activity). The project eventually will deliver a series of reports describing and mapping key indicators of the state of the Global Water System across paleo, historical, and contemporary time horizons as well as possible future time horizons derived from scenario analysis. These reports will identify the regions of particularly important change in the Global Water System.

The Digital Water Atlas

The Digital Water Atlas is the first step in the mapping activities of the GWSP. Unlike water-related atlases that are already available, one of the main aims of the GWSP Atlas is the clarification of the complex relationships between causes and effects in the Global Water System while emphasising the effects of global change and taking a broad temporal perspective encompassing past, present and future time domains.

The Atlas will eventually have different parts focussing on the present state, the historical state and past changes, and possible future states of the Global Water System. To describe the different states of the Global Water System we take a multi- and inter-disciplinary approach by using indicators from different scientific disciplines. The maps of the Atlas address, for example, issues of hydrology, biology, biogeochemistry, ecology, governance, and sociology.

In addition to 'just' providing maps indicating the states and state changes, the Atlas demonstrate important linkages and feedbacks within the Global Water System. The relationship between the regulation of rivers and the sediment transported to the sea is only one example, which can demonstrate not only temporal linkages but also resulting patterns on a spatial scale.

The Atlas is not a set of undocumented maps but includes a verbal description of what is shown in each map, and interpretations of the maps. The verbal description of the map is meant to point out interesting patterns and hot-spot regions, while the interpretation explains the underlying causes and linkages within the Global Water System. Furthermore, the documentation of the maps include information about the figures used to prepare the map, i.e. the metadata of the underlying dataset(s).

The provision of metadata for each map contributes to the intended high scientific quality of the Atlas. Another contribution to quality assurance is the intention to map the same indicator based on the results of different simulation models. These model intercomparisons will also stimulate and support discussion about the accuracy/uncertainty of outputs of simulation models. Since the maps of the Atlas will not only be based on simulation models but also on measurements (including remote sensing), mapping the accuracies/uncertainties related to these measurements will also contribute to the quality of the Atlas and stimulate further discussion. Eventually, a list of ‘needed maps’, which are considered to be important to describe the Global Water System, but which are not yet available (or only in a very poor quality), will help guide further investigations.

The Atlas focuses on maps with global coverage. Higher resolution information may be provided for hot spot regions and for results of regional case studies at a later stage of the project; the comparison (validation) of case study results with global analysis is also a means of quality assurance.

The Digital Water Atlas is not be a simple consolidation of all available/published maps and global datasets but concentrate on mapping the elements of the conceptual model that the GWSP uses to describe the Global Water System. The process of building a consensus on the mapped indicators and the interpretation of maps will foster the discussion among different scientific disciplines and therefore contribute to the ‘GWSP Discourse‘ (activity 4.2).

Ultimate Goal

The purpose and intent of the ‘Digital Water Atlas’ is to describe the basic elements of the Global Water System, the interlinkages of the elements and changes in the state of the Global Water System by creating a consistent set of annotated maps. The project especially promotes the collection, analysis and consideration of social science data on the global basis.


The Digital Water Atlas started simple and will evolve and mature in parallel with the entire Global Water System Project – especially with the development of the conceptual model of the Global Water System. Within the project we will concentrate on the elements considered to be the most relevant for the Global Water System.

The implementation of the Atlas will start with the selection, mapping and description of basic datasets considered to be of particular importance to investigate the Global Water System. The basic datasets concentrate on the description of the current and past states of the Global Water System and will provide a first multi-disciplinary view of the system. The next steps to implement the Atlas will include the analysis of changes in the state of the Global Water System and the description of major linkages and feedbacks within the Global Water System and with the Earth System.

The International Project Office (IPO) of the GWSP is coordinating the project, hosts the infrastructure and is responsible for the development and maintainace of the Digital Water Atlas. The datasets for preparing the maps are provided, annotated and discussed by members of the GWSP community. The preparation of maps is done by the IPO using a generic template. The development of the Digital Water Atlas is linked with the ‘Global Water System Lexicon’ (another GWSP activitiy lead by the IPO) and the development of a conceptual framework of the Global Water System.

The content of the Digital Water Atlas is available online with free and open access. Registered users can also download and use the datasets used to produce the maps. A password-protected section with maps for explicit use within the GWSP inner community, i.e. for partners in endorsed projects, may be provided in a later stage of the development. This section could include maps which are based on results that are not yet published.

A printed version with selected maps may eventually be published at the end of the project to provide an overview of the state, main dynamics and major driving forces for changes in the Global Water System.

Get Involved

If you are interested in getting involved in the development of the Digital Water Atlas or if you have any questions related to this fast-track activity please contact the  This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Last Updated ( Saturday, 26 July 2008 )
© 2017 GWSP Digital Water Atlas
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