The world is facing an escalating water crisis, fueled by population growth, increased demand, and global warming. Especially for emerging economies, this signifies mounting social, financial, and environmental risks. By improving water governance, countries can reduce poverty and become more resilient. Here are eight ways that water will shape our future.
1. Water is crucial for development
- Water underpins all the 17 goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
- According to the World Bank, it is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve SDG1 to end poverty, partly due to more frequent water-related disasters such as floods and droughts.
- The number of droughts and other extreme weather events have doubled in the past 25 years, and the World Health Organization warns this will have severe consequences for nutrition (SDG2) and health (SDG3).
- A growing body of research shows the importance of water for development and human well-being. When people have access to clean water and safe sanitation, their health is significantly improved. Ensuring access to clean water at home and sanitation in public places is especially important for girls and women, as it increases their chances of receiving an education or maintaining a job.
2. Water scarcity is worsening
- Nearly four billion people are currently experiencing severe water scarcity for at least one month each year, and the number is estimated to reach five billion in the next three decades.
- By 2030, 700 million people could be displaced because of intense water scarcity.
- Water demand is rapidly growing and is likely to increase by 20-30 per cent before 2050. Population growth, economic development, and new consumption patterns are the main drivers.
- Global warming is aggravating the situation with longer dry-spells and a growing number of droughts.
3. The climate crisis is a water crisis
- Global warming has a profound impact on the water cycle, which is why we primarily experience climate change in the form of too much or too little water. It also aggravates pollution of both surface water and groundwater.
- Global warming causes melting glaciers, sea-level rise, droughts, floods, hurricanes, and increasingly erratic rainfall patterns, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
- According to the World Meteorological Organization, droughts have increased by 29 per cent in the past two decades while flood-related disasters increased by 134 per cent.
- Countries can strengthen their resilience by investing more in climate adaptation that will better manage water-related climate risks.
- There is also a broad range of water-related solutions that help countries both mitigate and adapt to climate change. A growing number of countries are integrating water into their climate action plans under the Paris Agreement on climate change.
4. Water is fundamental for food security
- The Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services warns that climate change, land degradation, and biodiversity loss are linked in a complex feedback loop that is threatening water and food security.
- A report by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Control (IPCC) suggests that soil is eroding 10 to 100 times faster than it is being formed, with especially severe implications for smallholder farms in Sub-Saharan Africa that rely on rainfall and soil moisture.
- FAO warns that the increasing intensity and frequency of floods, droughts and megafires is having a devastating effect on food security.
5. Water pollution is a growing risk
- Water pollution has worsened in many rivers in Latin America, Africa, and Asia since the 1990s.
- More than half of all wastewater is discharged into nature without any treatment.
- The World Bank has demonstrated how water pollution is a great threat to both human lives and economic prosperity and warns that we are at risk of producing 70 per cent more waste by 2050.
- The main cause of water pollution in many low-income countries is fecal contamination, as there is a serious lack of safely managed toilets.
6. Ecosystems are under threat
- Healthy freshwater ecosystems are vital for life on Earth, yet they tend to be the hardest hit by biodiversity loss.
- Ecosystems providing freshwater are under increasing pressure from a growing population, human activities, and climate change.
- SDG6 calls for the world to increase the number of water bodies of good water quality (SDG 6.3.2), implement integrated water resources management (SDG 6.5.1) and protect freshwater ecosystems (SDG 6.6.1) but the world is not on track.
7. Water can be a catalyst for peace
- Climate change is a risk multiplier, especially since already unstable regions tend to be disproportionately impacted by water scarcity, water-related disasters and food insecurity.
- Water can also be a catalyst for peace and cooperation and there is growing interest in water diplomacy and frameworks for collaboration.
- In the last century, 149 water agreements were signed on transboundary water management but more than 60 per cent of transboundary river basins and an even higher percentage of shared groundwater aquifers still lack such agreements.
8. Water governance is the key to development and resilience
To address these challenges, we need to improve how we use and manage water so that both humans and nature receive equal shares. Water governance must be efficient and transparent. It should also be inclusive, with both women and men making decisions. Currently, women are much more often the water providers and carers, but too often have limited opportunities to influence decision-making.
As the global population looks set to reach 10 billion by 2050, pressure on the world’s freshwater will only continue to grow. How we value and manage water is one of our most decisive questions.