Project background and Objectives

Water scarcity, water quality degradation and the loss of freshwater biodiversity are critical environmental challenges worldwide, which have primarily been driven by a significant increase in water withdrawals during the last century. In the coming decades, climate and societal changes are projected to further exacerbate these challenges in many regions around the world. As such, defining a safe operating space (SOS) for water resources in a changing climate and society is urgently needed to ensure a sufficient and reliable supply of water of a quality acceptable for human activity and natural ecosystems. Furthermore, it is one of the necessary conditions for achieving globally the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, and in Europe for achieving in addition the objectives of the European Green Deal, the Biodiversity strategy for 2030, and those of the different European water policies including the Water Framework, Floods, Nitrates and Drinking Water Directives. However, defining the SOS for the entire water resources system at spatial scales relevant to decision-making and its projections into the future requires going beyond state-of-the-art water system modelling toward a holistic and participatory assessment framework that includes data gathering, integrated modelling, and working with relevant stakeholders.

SOS-Water aims to create the foundation for this framework, by co-creating future scenarios and management pathways with stakeholders in five case studies in Europe and abroad. It will advance water system models and link them with impact models of ecosystem services and biodiversity, to create a novel integrated water modelling system. This integrated water modelling system will be benchmarked against a wide range of state-of-the-art Earth observations and will be used to calculate selected indicators covering all dimensions of water resources systems, to ultimately design a multi-dimensional SOS of policies and water management pathways evaluated across a broad set of scenarios. The results of SOS-Water will help improving the understanding of water resources availability and streamline water planning and management at local to regional levels and beyond, such that the allocation of water among societies, economies, and ecosystems will be economically efficient, socially fair, and resilient to shocks.


Methodology and conceptual framework

To achieve its objective, SOS-Water will initiate two main research lines: two “rails” (first research line) that will be connected through two linking “steps” (second research line) that need to be taken to climb the ladder to a holistic and participatory water system SOS (see Figure on the left).

The two rails are the use and advancement of the Integrated Water Modelling System (IWMS) and the participatory process, that constitute the foundation of the SOS assessment framework and that need to be connected to ensure real-world relevance of the methodological and technical advancements achieved within SOS-Water. The steps connecting the rails are monitoring (Earth Observation) and indicators. Taking the individual steps (EO and indicators) supported by the rails (Co-developed water values and scenarios, and integrated water modelling system) will ultimately support the design of the water system SOS framework.

Project Impact

The water system SOS assessment framework that will be developed by SOS-Water will contribute to advancing the water science by downscaling and operationalizing the concept of global freshwater SOS and making it relevant and informative at the regional and local scales at which water is managed. Moreover, the framework will be able to inform the design of water management pathways to address the ongoing and imminent water challenges, that maximize both the socio-economic and ecological value of water and are endorsed by stakeholders.
The water system SOS assessment framework will be implemented within five different case study regions based on an inclusive and iterative stakeholder process to enforce direct outcomes and foster long-term impact. However, SOS-Water pursues to provide guidelines and principles to enable its application elsewhere to ensure uptake outside SOS-Water and legacy beyond the project duration.

On a wider scale, the full adoption of the water system SOS assessment framework within the EU, regional and basin level policymaking will significantly contribute to inform the involved communities, companies, and decision-makers about the role of the holistic management of water resources within the climate change debate, planning for future infrastructure and the societal benefits of acting now rather than later.