Cyberseminar on Water and Population Dynamics
05 October 2015 to 16 October 2015
Invited Experts

Ellis Adams, Department of Geography, Michigan State University, MI, USA

Lis Mullin Bernhardt, Programme Officer, UN-Water, United Nations, New York NY, USA

Dr. Stéphanie Dos Santos, Lab of Population, Environment, Development, Institute of Research for Development (IRD), Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Dr. Kelli L. Larson, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, Arizona State University, Phoenix AZ, USA

Thomas Parris, ISciences LLC, Burlington VT, USA

Dr. Yoshihide Wada, Department of Physical Geography, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands


Historically population dynamics have been fundamentally shaped by access to water resources (de Sherbinin & Dompka 1998; Kummu et al. 2011). Early towns and cities invariably were located near reliable water sources, and population density has historically been highest in humid and sub-humid climate zones (Samson et al. 2011). As civilization progressed, greater efforts were made to create water transport systems (e.g., the aqueducts of ancient Rome) for provisioning of major settlements. While new sources of water have been developed (pumping deep aquifers and desalination), and agriculture and industry have become more efficient, society’s fundamental dependence on water resources has not changed. Recent droughts affecting São Paulo, Brazil, and major urban areas in California highlight the fragility of major cities to drought, and researchers project further water-related shortages for urban areas in the future (McDonald et al. 2011).

Water scarcity has been identified as the number 1 risk in terms of impacts in the Global Risk Report – ahead of items such as spread of infectious diseases, weapons of mass destruction, and interstate conflict – while the second risk in terms of likelihood is extreme weather events, including flood and drought (WEF 2015). Absolute water scarcity is not the only issue; in some regions, such as China and India, major rivers and lakes have become too polluted to use (UN 2015), and there are also issues related to differential access to water resources. Access to adequate improved waters supplies in informal settlements in many developing countries is particularly challenging, and this has important health and gender dimensions. At the same time, drought has led to temporary and permanent displacement of agriculturalists and pastoralists in many developed and developing regions, further contributing to urban growth (see for example McLeman et al. 2014 and Guilmoto 1998).

Existing and projected water crises in the future pose threats not only to human wellbeing and environmental sustainability for the planet, but increasingly are perceived by governments as threats to national security (Bakker and Morinville 2013). Growing attention is being paid to the role of governance in mediating human responses to the complexity and uncertainty of future water supply. Yet water governance remains ambiguous in many aspects. This ambiguity is a challenge for researchers and practitioners as it inhibits effective communication and sets participants at cross-purposes.

This cyberseminar focuses on water supplies and population dynamics. Major questions include:

  • What are some of the intervening/mediating/contextual factors linking water supply/access and population dynamics, globally and locally?
  • Where are some current 'hotspots' of water scarcity, and what are the population dynamics in these hotspots?
  • What are some of the current ‘hotspots’ of flooding and drought, and what are the population dynamics in those hotspots?
  • Are supply systems for major cities and agricultural areas in most regions adequate to supply domestic, industrial, and agricultural (DIA) needs?
  • How can water supply and sanitation systems be bolstered, especially in informal settlements of developing country cities, and issues such as the gender dimension of water access be best addressed?
  • What strategies can be deployed for increasing wastewater treatment covering greater proportions of the world’s urban population?
  • How might population distribution change in the future as a result of declines or increases in water availability owing to climate change?
  • What could be the consequences of these changes?
  • What existing/emerging efforts to create governance institutions and strategies for a more sustainable future of water supply may deserve a discussion?

This cyberseminar contributes to the UN International Decade for Action “Water for Life” (2005-2015) and to discussions around a plan of action for meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


Bakker, K. and C. Morinville. 2013. The Governance Dimensions of Water Security: A review. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Science. 371 (2002), 2013011

de Sherbinin, A., and V. Dompka (eds.). 1998. Water and Population Dynamics: Case Studies and Policy Implications. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Guilmoto, C. 1998. Institutions and Migrations. Short-term Versus Long-term Moves in Rural West Africa. Population Studies, Volume 52, Issue 1.

Kummu, M., H. de Moel, P.J. Ward, and O. Varis.  2011. How Close Do We Live to Water? A Global Analysis of Population Distance to Freshwater Bodies. PLOSOne. Published: June 8, 2011DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0020578

McDonald, R.I., P. Green, D. Balk, B.M Fekete, C. Revenga, et al. 2011. Urban growth, climate change, and freshwater availaibilty. PNAS. doi:/10.1073/pnas.1011615108.

McLeman, R., J. Dupre, L.B. Ford, J. Ford, K. Gajewski, and G. Marchildo. 2014. What we learned from the Dust Bowl: lessons in science, policy, and adaptation.  Population and Environment, 35(4): 417–440.2014.

Samson, J., D. Berteaux, B.J. McGill and M.M. Humphries. 2011. Geographic disparities and moral hazards in the predicted impacts of climate change on human populations. Global Ecology and Biogeography doi:10.1111/j.1466-8238.2010.00632.x

United Nations. 2015. Water for Life: Water Quality. Available at

World Economic Forum (WEF). 2014. Global Risks Report 2015. Geneva: WEF