The world faces an impending water crisis, with demand expected to exceed freshwater supply by 40% by the end of this decade, experts said on the eve of a key UN water summit.
Governments urgently need to stop subsidizing water extraction and overuse through misguided farm subsidies, and industries from mining to manufacturing must be persuaded to reconsider their wasteful practices, according to a landmark report on the Economics of Water.
Nations must start managing water as a “global commons” as most countries are heavily dependent on their neighbors for water supplies and overexploitation, pollution and the climate crisis threaten water supplies worldwide, say the report’s authors.
Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and lead author of the report, told the Guardian that the world’s neglect of water resources is leading to disaster. “The scientific evidence is that we have a water crisis. We misuse water, pollute water and change the entire global water cycle through what we do to the climate. It’s a triple crisis.”
Mariana Mazzucato, economist and professor at University College London, also lead author, added: “We need a much more proactive and ambitious approach to the common good. We need to put equity and equity at the center, it’s not just a technological or financial issue.”
The report marks the first time that the global water system has been comprehensively scrutinized and its value to countries – and the risks to their prosperity if water is neglected – clearly spelled out. As with the Stern report on the economics of the climate crisis in 2006 and the Dasgupta report on the economics of biodiversity in 2021, the report’s authors hope to highlight the crisis in a way that politicians and economists can recognize.
According to Rockstrom, many governments still don’t realize how interdependent they are when it comes to water. Most countries depend on evaporation of water from neighboring countries for about half of their water supply — known as “green” water because it is stored in soil and released through transpiration into forests and other ecosystems as plants absorb and release water from the soil vapor from their leaves into the air.
The report makes seven key recommendations, including reshaping global governance of water resources, expanding investment in water management through public-private partnerships, pricing water appropriately, and establishing “Just Water Partnerships” to secure funding for water projects in development – and central countries to procure. income countries.
More than US$1 trillion (£830 billion) in subsidies goes to agriculture and water supplies around the world each year, and this often results in water overuse. Water leaks also need to be addressed urgently, the report says, and restoring freshwater systems such as wetlands should be another priority.
Water is fundamental to the climate crisis and the global food crisis. “There won’t be an agricultural revolution unless we fix water,” Rockstrom said. “Behind all these challenges that we face, there is always water, and we never talk about water.”
Many ways of using water are inefficient and need to be changed, with Rockstrom pointing to the sewage systems of developed countries. “It’s quite remarkable that we use safe freshwater to transport feces, urine, nitrogen and phosphorus – and then require inefficient wastewater treatment plants that dump 30% of all nutrients into downstream aquatic ecosystems, destroying them and creating dead zones. We’re really cheating on this linear, water-based modern system of waste treatment. Massive innovation is required.”
On March 22, the UN Water Summit will take place in New York, chaired by the governments of the Netherlands and Tajikistan. World leaders are invited but few are expected as most countries will be represented by ministers or senior officials. It will be the first time in more than four decades that the UN has met to discuss water, with previous attempts being thwarted by governments that have refused to support any form of international stewardship of the resource.
Henk Ovink, a special envoy for international water affairs from the Netherlands, told the Guardian the conference was crucial. “If we are to hope to solve our climate crisis, our biodiversity crisis and other global food, energy and health challenges, we need to radically change the way we approach water valuing and stewardship,” he said. “[This] is the best opportunity we have to put water at the heart of global action to ensure people, plants and the environment continue to have the water they need.”
Seven calls to action on water
Manage the global water cycle as a global commons that must be protected collectively and in our common interest
Ensure safe and adequate water for all vulnerable groups and work with industry to increase investment in water
Stop underpricing water. Appropriate pricing and targeted support for the poor enable more efficient, equitable and sustainable use of water
Reduce more than $1 trillion in annual agricultural and water subsidies that often drive excessive water use and reduce leaks in water systems.
Establish “Just Water Partnerships” that can mobilize finance for low- and middle-income countries
In this decade, take urgent action on issues such as restoring wetlands and depleted groundwater resources, recycling the water used in industry; Shift to precision farming that uses water more efficiently; and let companies report on their “water footprint”.
Reform water governance at the international level and include water in trade agreements. Governance must also consider women, farmers, indigenous peoples and others on the front lines of water conservation