Doctoral dissertation: Global analyses of drivers of water scarcity indicators in transboundary river basins

Press release 2020-02-17 at 10:46
Hafsa Munia
"The work I have produced has important policy implications for improving water management in transboundary basins", says Hafsa Munia from SYKE.

Future water scarcity in transboundary river will intensify in basins which are already under stress and is mostly a local problem, reports a new doctoral dissertation. Hafsa Munia, researcher of the Finnish Environment Institute SYKE, developed a novel framework to understand globally the evolution of transboundary water scarcity over time and to assess downstream dependencies on upstream water use. Her doctoral dissertation will be examined at the Aalto University on 21 February.

The thesis found that although many downstream areas are highly dependent on upstream water resources, the key driver for increased water scarcity has been, and will be in the future, local water use. It is therefore important to manage both local and upstream water use and action to avoid scarcity. The analysis found that over the past decades' water scarcity in the transboundary basins has intensified and developed mainly over the basins which are heavily irrigated and densely populated, e.g. Central and South Asia, China, southern Europe, the USA, Mexico, and the MENA Region Countries (Middle East and North Africa).

It is sometimes tempting to blame others

The work I have produced has important policy implications for improving water management in transboundary basins. In case of shared water resources, it is sometimes tempting to blame others for water scarcity, while it is not the case always. Water managers therefore need to have some information about the key issues”, says Hafsa Munia from SYKE.

“The aim of this dissertation was to explore this at global scale and contributes to transboundary management in places lacking the capacity to obtain more reliable data and perform such analyses themselves. Global view of the analysis also provides a common view of the problem, shaping how people approach this problem. In this way, this analysis provides information that has a more indirect rather than direct effect on management, with more general insights into transboundary water scarcity adaptation and water allocation.”

Climate and socioeconomic changes can be considered as troubling issues

Limited resources and increasing demand strain the competition for water, especially when river basins cross country boundaries. One of the key challenges is allocating shared water resources and their benefits between different countries.

In the case of transboundary waters, the roles of local vs upstream changes in water use and availability due to climate and socioeconomic changes can be considered as especially troubling issues.

Any changes in upstream, either due to changing climate or changes in water use, directly impact downstream water availability. For example, many socioeconomic developments, which are mostly targeted at local to regional scales, are known to impact the hydrological cycle which can affect streamflow on larger scales, such as in downstream areas.

Upstream water withdrawals from the streamflow may decrease water availability for downstream use. Changes in climate would impact both local and upstream water availability. Understanding these upstream-downstream linkages is, therefore, an essential basis for integrated land and water resources management and planning in the shared river basin. This sets transboundary water scarcity analysis apart from other water scarcity analysis.

It is a normal part of basin-scale planning to look at water availability scenarios under climate change and water consumption scenarios. In this dissertation, the aim was to explore this idea at the global scale. The focus on annual water stress identified the significance of water allocation problems in shared basins and added nuance to the existing understanding of water stress drivers.

The potential hotspots identified in the analysis provides insights to policymakers to support the long-term water management planning in those basins.

Global water stress hotpots in 1980 (past), 2010 (present) and in 2050(future) for different climate scenarios.

Further Information

Ms Hafsa Munia, Researcher, Finnish Environment Institute SYKE, tel. +358 295 251 139,

The public defence of the dissertation will be held at Aalto University in Espoo on Friday 21 February 2020 at 12.

Address: Aalto University, Tietotekniikan talo, Sali T2, Konemiehentie 2, Espoo

Academic dissertation in environmental science: Global analyses of drivers of water scarcity indicators in transboundary river basins 

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