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Photos: These 4 Maps Give a Unique Look Into Global Challenges

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Energy & Environment
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Maps have been used by explorers and educators for centuries to provide a visual representation of our world. Most of us can remember first learning about the geography of our planet by the tattered map at the head of an elementary class, or the globe in the school library.

Today's maps are a world away from those vague likenesses that often painted countries more as as two-dimensional caricatures. Today's maps provide a stark relief and can often depict truths about our world that we only guessed at in years' past.

Visualizing drought


One recent example was put out by the World Resources Institute, which developed an interactive mapping tool to help companies understand the breadth of the world's water crisis. The real value of the online program, however, is that it can be calibrated to show the commercial and future impact of drought in affected areas. Water risk affects every part of an integral society, from the success of a textile industry that needs water in order to operate, to the production of food for export in districts that aren't under the threat of drought.

NASA provided another way of looking at this issue in its 2007 maps of the world's vegetation (below). Those areas that are most threatened by drought today reflect the greatest deficit in vegetation and agricultural potential.

North Africa, known for its parched lands, regularly faces water problems when it comes to agricultural development. But according to an article published by CGIAR (an initiative led by the International Water Management Institute), the problem is the way the water is used, not the lack of groundwater. North and South Africa actually have vast aquifers, say the authors, but how they are accessed is vital to their continued use. “In other words, in these regions, aquifers don’t fill up again or at least not nearly fast enough.  When they run out, that’s it.”

Understanding the relationship to the world's natural bio-hemispheres and how to properly manage the water resources that feed them seems to be a major concern these days, as places like California wrestle with impending drought conditions.

Mapping wealth disparity


We regularly hear about the world's inequitable wealth distribution. Initiatives like the Occupy movement helped to galvanize awareness of just how little some populations live on, and how unequal wealth distribution is across the globe.

“Over the last 10 years, economic inequality has been growing, particularly in developed countries where, historically, it had been more contained,” wrote Valentina Pasquali in a 2012 Global Finance article. To demonstrate the growing problem, he provided drawings that showed what the distribution would look like on a map. Compared to wealth distribution in the 16th century (also included), today's statistics are better, but they still reflect a lot of global disparity. The 2015 forecast is based on World Bank Development data.

Slavery has, until recently been thought of as a thing of the past. Today, thanks to organizations like the Walk Free Foundation, we have a visual reference to just how prevalent it still is. The organization's 2014 Global Slavery Index Report paints a disturbing picture of this issue, which affects every nation on earth in one way or another. Commerce and industrial development are often the insidious and invisible links to modern-day slavery.

NASA's patchwork of nighttime images of the earth tell a lot about the world's wealth distribution as well. Again, Africa stands out in stark contrast to 21st century technological development and the challenges that face some of the world's poorest communities.

“In sub-Saharan Africa, 30 percent of health facilities do not have electricity,” notes One.org, underscoring the challenges of communities to improve life-saving services in a technologically driven world.

In the last few years, there has been greater push to expand electricity access to rural communities. Solar initiatives and U.S.-led programs have underscored efforts to increase electricity access for Africa's 589 million residents. Today's maps, which oftentimes provide a visual picture of the world's disparities, are part of the tools that help realize those goals.

Images: 1) Water risk: World Resource Institute 2) Global vegetation and night images: NASA 3) Slavery: Walk Free Foundation

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

Read more stories by Jan Lee