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Meeting the water needs of humans and ecosystems is perhaps one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Over the last decade, it has become increasingly clear that if we are to face the water and environmental challenges of the future we must view the Earth as a single, though highly complex, system that includes the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the geosphere and the biosphere. It has also become clear that these components are coupled and highly dynamic over various spatial and temporal scales; changes that occur in one component at one location often influence the environment elsewhere at later times. Understanding these coupled processes and complex feedbacks, with sufficient accuracy and in the face of anthropogenic and global changes, is a prerequisite to successful management of water resources and ecosystems. Advancing research across and beyond disciplinary boundaries requires prioritization of problems, coordination of efforts, and synthesis.