News.Jan 21, 2022

Water can reduce global risks

Most forecasts for 2022 show how governments and businesses are growing increasingly worried about environmental risks. But few people seem to realize how better water policies could effectively mitigate many of the most severe threats.

When the World Economic Forum recently presented its annual Global Risk Report two trends stood out. One is how environmental risks now dominate both short- and long-term perspectives. The other is how pessimism is spreading across the world –  less than 16 per cent of respondents say that they feel optimistic about the future.

Water is no longer listed as a major risk in the Global Risk Report, which is surprising given what we know about the state of the world’s freshwater. But the major environmental risks are closely linked to water. By understanding the importance of water in this relationship can we greatly improve our chances of finding effective solutions. Here is how.

Water for mitigation and adaptation

Climate action failure is ranked as the world’s gravest danger in terms of severity. So far, the debate on how to tackle global warming has primarily focused on technical solutions, which are of course urgently needed. But an important shift in 2021, which SIWI has repeatedly called for, was a greater focus on the need to strengthen nature’s ability to sequester carbon. The renewed attention was partly sparked by scientists’ concern that this ability seems to be weakening, which was the described in the most recent report from the IPCC climate panel.

SIWI welcomed how the role of nature was much more present at COP26 in November compared to previous UN climate conferences. The event also saw a new pledge to end deforestation, which is important since forests absorb about one-third of globally produced CO2 each year. But in 2022 more focus is needed on protecting wetlands, which store even more carbon than forests but disappear three times faster.

Oceans are the single most important sequester of carbon but at a steep price. Restoring ocean health must a top priority in 2022 which will require bold action to tackle pollution from rivers, cities and agriculture.

Water-resilience saves lives and livelihoods

Extreme weather is the second most severe risk, according to the Global Risk Report after a year of unprecedented floods, heatwaves, droughts and hurricanes in many parts of the world.

Since 90 per cent of extreme weather events are water-related this should lead to more investments in early-warning systems as well as in adaptation of buildings and infrastructure. There must be a shift in agriculture to make it more resilient to droughts and unpredictable rainfalls. After a year of drought and food crises, especially in Southern Africa, few things are more urgent. Learn more about how SIWI supports more resilient agriculture.

Global water issues in your inbox

Stay up to date on SIWI's work and related topics from around the world.

Sign up to our newsletter
Farmer tending to rainfed crops in a Zambian small-holding.
Farmer tending to rainfed crops in a Zambian small-holding. Image by Jonathan Jones

Freshwater ecosystems safe haven for biodiversity

Biodiversity loss, perceived as the third-most severe risk, is closely linked to the climate crisis, as well as other pressing issues like poverty, and continues at an alarming rate. The global Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warning of an era of mass extinction of species that could threaten also human existence.

Hopefully the coming year could mean a fresh start with the Convention on Biological Diversity setting new targets and more commitments made as part of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. But for this to be successful freshwater ecosystems must receive much greater attention since they are the most imperiled.

Despite freshwater ecosystems declining faster than terrestrial and marine ecosystems, there are few comprehensive strategies to protect them and less funding than for other biodiversity initiatives. In 2020 a group of scientists presented a six-step plan to boost protection of freshwater ecosystems, which could make it easier to take action.

It is time to raise awareness of the water aspects of humanity’s greatest challenges. We still have a tendency to overlook powerful water-related solutions simply because we are not used to thinking about climate and biodiversity in terms of freshwater. But when we start to see these connections we will also see more reasons for cautious optimism for the future.

Much of SIWI’s work in the coming year will therefore be focused on explaining these interlinkages and presenting existing or emerging solutions. Not least will this be part of World Water Week 2022 in August on the theme Seeing the Unseen: The Value of Water. Stay tuned for more updates!