The world is facing an imminent water crisis, with demand expected to outstrip freshwater supply by 40 percent by the end of this decade, experts have said on the eve of a crucial UN water summit.
Governments urgently need to stop subsidizing water abstraction and overuse with misdirected agricultural subsidies, and industries from mining to manufacturing must be made to review their wasteful practices, according to a water management country report.
Nations must start managing water as a global common good because most countries are highly dependent on their neighbors for water, and overuse, pollution and the climate crisis threaten water supplies worldwide, the report’s authors say.
Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and co-chair of the Global Commission on the Economics of Water and lead author of the report, told the Guardian that neglecting the world’s water resources led to the disaster. “The scientific evidence is that we have a water crisis. We’re misusing water, we’re polluting water, and we’re changing the entire global hydrological cycle through our impact on climate. It’s a triple crisis.”
Rockstrom’s colleague Global Commission on the Economics of Water chair Mariana Mazzucato, a professor at University College London and also the report’s lead author, added: “We need a much more proactive and ambitious approach to the common good. We need to put justice and equity at the center of this, it doesn’t just be a technological or financial problem.
The report is the first time that the global water system has been comprehensively examined and its value to countries – and the risks to their well-being if water is neglected – is clearly presented. As with Stern’s Economic Review of the Climate Crisis in 2006 and Dasgupta’s Review of the Biodiversity Economy in 2021, the report’s authors want to highlight the crisis in a way that policymakers and economists can recognize.
Many governments still don’t understand how interdependent they are on water, according to Rockstrom. Most countries depend on the evaporation of water from neighboring countries for about half of their water supply. This is known as “green” water because it stays in the soil and is released through evaporation from forests and other ecosystems when plants take water from the soil and release steam from their leaves into the air.
The report makes seven key recommendations, including reshaping global water management, increasing investment in water management through public-private partnerships, pricing water appropriately, and establishing “water-only partnerships” to access water project financing for developing and medium-scale water projects. to the countries of origin.
More than $700bn (£575bn) of subsidies worldwide go to agriculture and water each year, often leading to excessive water consumption. According to the report, water leaks also need to be urgently addressed, and restoration of freshwater systems such as wetlands should be another priority.
Water is the basis of the climate crisis and the global food crisis. “There won’t be an agricultural revolution unless we fix water,” said Rockstrom. “Behind all these challenges we face, there is always water, and we never talk about water.”
Many ways of using water are inefficient and in need of change, and Rockstrom points to sewage systems in developed countries. “It’s quite remarkable that we use safe, fresh water to transport faeces, urine, nitrogen, phosphorus – and then we need inefficient sewage treatment plants that leak 30% of all nutrients into downstream aquatic ecosystems and destroy them and create dead zones. We’re really kidding ourselves with this linear, water-based modern waste treatment system. Huge innovations are needed.”
The UN Water Summit, led by the governments of the Netherlands and Tajikistan, will be held in New York on March 22. World leaders are invited, but only a few are expected to attend, and most countries are represented by ministers or high-ranking officials. It is the first time in more than four decades that the UN has met to discuss water, and previous attempts have been blocked by governments reluctant to accept any form of international governance of the resource.
Henk Ovink, the Netherlands’ special envoy for international water affairs, told the Guardian that the conference was crucial. “If we have any hope of solving our climate crisis, our biodiversity crisis and other global food, energy and health challenges, we must radically change our approach to valuing and managing water,” he said. “[This] is the best opportunity to put water at the center of global action to ensure that people, crops and the environment continue to have the water they need.
Seven prompts to act in the water
Manage the global water cycle as a global common good to be protected together and in our shared interests.
Ensure the availability of safe and sufficient water for all vulnerable groups and cooperate with industry to increase investments in water.
Stop underpricing water. Correct pricing and targeted support for the poor enable more efficient, fair and sustainable use of water
Reduce more than $700 billion in subsidies to agriculture and water each year, which often increase excessive water use, and reduce leaks in water systems.
Establish “water-only partnerships” that can access funding for low- and middle-income countries.
Take urgent action this decade on issues such as restoring wetlands and depleted groundwater resources, recycling water used in industry; a shift to precision agriculture that uses water more efficiently; and companies report their “water footprint”.
Let’s reform the administration of the water sector at the international level and include water in trade agreements. Women, farmers, indigenous peoples and others on the front lines of water protection must also be taken into account in management.