The Future of Water

Water is arguably the most important resource on the planet. As humans, our dependence upon it is profound.

Nations fight over it. Towns are founded near it. Bodies are it; approximately 60% of the adult human body is water (even the boney bits). Ishmael in Moby-Dick is so overcome by how water structures the whole of our lives that he chalks it up to the supernatural. “Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it,” he concludes.

At least metaphorically, all roads really do lead to water. Or rather, without water, there’s no road, no place to get to, and no reason to go.

And right now, water is in danger. Rising temperatures and population growth have changed how water is distributed across the globe. According to the United Nations, 85% of the world’s population already lives in the driest part of a planet that is getting drier, while 780 million people currently do not have access to clean water. Population is expected to grow by 2-3 billion in the next 40 years, putting immense strain on the availability of an already limited resource. 

That’s why Dr. Maria L. Chu uses the Illinois Campus Cluster Program (ICCP) to predict water’s future--and our own.

Watershed

Chu (left), an Assistant Professor in Agricultural and Biological Engineering, studies how a variety of factors alter how water moves in the watershed. A watershed is all of the land that drains into the same body of water. Watersheds collect all of the water in an area and move it through the ground to creeks, streams, rivers, and, eventually, to the ocean. Chu looks at everything that could impact the quantity and quality of water.

“Water changes are caused by environmental stressors like climate change and land use changes due to socioeconomic factors, like population growth. How land keeps up with the demands of more and more people will affect what our water is like and how much of it there is,” Chu says.

One new parking lot can change how water moves between sky, ground, and river in an area. Chu considers the hundreds of thousands of possibilities that this new parking lot will bring to the quality and quantity of water and to the ecosystem as a whole. This work can only be done with supercomputers. After considering all possibilities, Chu ends up with models that can best predict future scenarios.

“I think of scenarios, a bunch of ‘what if?’ statements. ‘If climate change increases this much, what will be the effect?’ A good scenario is ‘if five millimeters of rain fell in an area with four parking lots and crops growing in it using x amount of fertilizer, how is water impacted here?’ But just these three numbers produce twenty-seven combinations,” Chu says.

Chu then relies on the ICCP to see the outcomes of slightly tweaking these models -- adding a parking lot here, planting a few more crops there, causing more rain to fall.

Without access to the Cluster, Chu’s work would be impossible. “Running a model without a supercomputer would take me the rest of my life,” she says.

And supercomputers encourage more efficient work. “You’re forced to optimize,” Chu said with a laugh. “You’re not physically doing the work on your own. Human intervention is less, which does mean that human error is less. With these tools, you run your model, wait, then collect your results.”

What Now 

These results will continue to influence public policy on mitigating and managing water distribution. But Chu’s predictions aren’t just valuable for imagining a potentially parched future.

They’re encouraging us to think of today.

“We’re seeing changes right now. Some places that don’t need more water are getting more than before, and other places that need water aren’t getting any at all,” Chu says.

With Chu’s work, we’re prompted to ask not just “What if?” but “What now?” The future depends on our answer. 

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The Illinois Campus Cluster Program (ICCP) is the centralized hub of supercomputing resources at Illinois. Researchers from every field, as well as individuals, groups, and campus units, are welcome to invest in and use these resources. Researchers use the Campus Cluster for a variety of projects, including statistical modeling and data visualization. For more information, see campuscluster.illinois.edu or contact help@campuscluster.illinois.edu.