"The common occurrence of institutional vulnerability in our sampled nations is exciting because it shows us something we are aware of but have rarely tried to quantify, at least from a physical science perspective – management matters," Julie Padowski of Washington State University, US, told environmentalresearchweb. "It lends additional weight to the importance that how we manage water resources – in addition to how much water we have – has an effect on water vulnerability."

Padowski and colleagues measured institutional vulnerability by assessing "rules for regulating water quantity and quality, governmental transparency, [and] virtual water flows". An issue in 44 of the nations, institutional vulnerability was the most commonly experienced type; most frequently it took the form of governmental corruption.

The team analysed 19 characteristics – spanning hydrology, law, water quality and economics – that affect water supply vulnerability for nations with a per capita income of less than $10,725.

Jordan was the most vulnerable nation, showing critical vulnerability for five of the 19 characteristics. Yemen and Djibouti were nearly as vulnerable.

"Turkmenistan also ranked as very vulnerable, and this was a surprise given how other indices, assessing on different characteristics, had ranked this country," said Padowski. "Only by including this broader array of characteristics do we see that this nation not only has institutional vulnerability, but must deal with added vulnerability derived from their dependency, both in terms of quality and quantity, on water originating outside their borders."

Demand-based vulnerability was a significant problem for Latin America and Southeast Asia, where many countries devote substantial portions of their freshwater to ecosystem maintenance and much of the population lives in cities. Endowment vulnerability, meanwhile, was key in northern Africa and south Asia, where poor access to sanitation threatens local water quality, and there are low volumes of renewable freshwater and a high dependence on neighbouring countries for water.

The team examined the pattern of vulnerability characteristics too, finding similarities between countries such as Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Guatemala. "Shared patterns in freshwater vulnerability are not necessarily dictated by geographic proximity," said Padowski.

Most regional or global water vulnerability assessments focus on demand and availability, according to Padowski, but fail to account for management-related causes for water vulnerability, such as institutional and infrastructural problems. "Since many water supply systems are heavily managed, we wanted to re-examine vulnerability at this larger scale, taking these very important characteristics into account," she said.

The researchers hope that their framework will help both water managers and other scientists and researchers think about water supply management and vulnerability in a more integrated way. "Our results show that institutional characteristics are a major source of vulnerability in the majority of the nations we examined, despite this not being something commonly measured," said Padowski. "Future work that better integrates management characteristics into water supply vulnerability analyses at more refined scales will be needed."

The team reported the findings in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

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