Maps Show How Water Can Be a Precious Lifeline—or a Deadly Weapon

A new atlas by "guerrilla cartographers" explores the importance of water in everything from ancient mythology to modern warfare.

In the recent conflicts in Iraq and Syria, water has often been used as a weapon. When ISIS seized the Fallujah Barrage, a dam on the Euphrates River, in 2014, they raised the floodgates to deprive downstream cities of water.

Later, they released water from the dam in an attempt to flood approaching Iraqi forces, which eventually recaptured the dam in 2016. (See "What You Need to Know About the World's Water Wars.")

Water touches every aspect of human life, sometimes in unexpected ways, says Darin Jensen, a cartographer at the University of California and founder of a nonprofit group called Guerrilla Cartography.

The group’s latest project, Water: An Atlas, takes an unconventional look at the importance of water through more than 80 maps, including one showing the sites where water has played a role in the conflict with ISIS (included in the gallery above).

The maps in the atlas come from artists, activists, academics, and other mapmakers. Like the group’s first atlas, which focused on food issues, it was a crowdsourced effort. Organizers picked the theme and solicited contributions.

“It’s a very bottom-up process where we don’t look to publishers or academics to tell us what people want to read on a map,” Jensen says. “We announce a theme and let people who are passionate about it tell us what should be in the atlas."

Troubled Waters

Many of the maps focus on climate and environmental issues. One depicts the impact of alternating cycles of drought and flooding in North Korea in recent years; several others show the effects of rising sea levels on places and populations around the world.

Water use and conservation is another common theme, with maps and graphics that highlight possible strategies for water conservation, such as the use of aquaponics in agriculture or projects designed to collect drinking water from fog.

Unlike most maps you’d find in a more conventional atlas, some of the ones in the Guerrilla Cartography atlas have a very a definite point of view.

A map of the Dakotas created by a team of activists and scholars, for example, ties the threat to drinking water posed by the Dakota Access Pipeline to historical land seizures and the federal government's violence against Native Americans. (See "4 Key Impacts of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines.")

So Long, Vegas?

Many maps take an imaginative approach. The first map in the gallery above looks to the future, envisioning water conflicts in North America in 2028.

By that time, the mapmakers suggest, water shortages will have rendered Las Vegas uninhabitable and there will be a demilitarized zone around the Great Lakes to protect this precious source of drinking water. (Read "Grabbing Water From Future Generations.")

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. A chapter of imaginary maps is packed with mythological sea creatures and includes a map that tracks the locations people have proposed over the centuries for the lost city of Atlantis.

All of the mapmakers volunteered their time to make the atlas, and Guerrilla Cartography has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund its printing. If they exceed their goal, Jensen says, they plan to distribute extra copies to schools and libraries.

If you’re interested in maps of water, you might enjoy our previous posts about a remarkably detailed map of the Gulf of Mexico seafloor or a strange blob of warm water in the Pacific Ocean.