The world faces a looming water crisis, with demand expected to exceed fresh water supplies by 40% by the end of this decade, experts said on the eve of a crucial UN water summit.
Governments urgently need to stop subsidizing the extraction and overuse of water through misdirected agricultural subsidies, and industries from mining to manufacturing must be forced to review their wasteful practices, according to a landmark report on the economics of water.
Countries must start managing water as a “global commons” because most countries rely heavily on their neighbors for water supplies, and overuse, pollution and the climate crisis threaten water supplies worldwide, the report’s authors said.
Johan Rockstrom, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a lead author on the report, told the Guardian that the current neglect of the world’s 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 hydrological cycle through what we do with the climate. It is a triple crisis.”
Mariana Mazzucato, an economist and professor at University College London, also a lead author, added: “We need a much more proactive and ambitious approach for the public good. We need to put fairness and justice at the center, it’s not just a technology or financial issue.”
The report marks the first time that the global water system has been comprehensively examined and its value to countries – and the risks to their prosperity if water is neglected – laid out in clear terms. Similar to the 2006 Stern review of the economics of the climate crisis and the Dasgupta review of the 2021 economics of biodiversity, the report’s authors hope to shed light on the crisis in a way policymakers and economists can recognize.
Many governments still don’t realize how interdependent they are when it comes to water, according to Rockstrom. Most countries depend for about half of their water supply on the evaporation of water from neighboring countries – also referred to as “green” water because it is retained in the soil and released through transpiration in forests and other ecosystems, when plants absorb water from the soil and release vapor into the air from their leaves.
The report contains seven key recommendations, including reshaping global water resource management, scaling up investment in water resources through public-private partnerships, pricing water properly and establishing “just water partnerships” to attract funding for water projects in developing, middle and income countries.
More than $1 trillion (£830 billion) in subsidies worldwide go to agriculture and water each year, often leading to excessive water consumption. Water leakage also needs to be addressed urgently, the report found, 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 we face, there is always water and we never talk about water.”
Many of the ways water is used are inefficient and need to be changed, with Rockstrom pointing to the sewage systems of developed countries. “It is quite remarkable that we use safe, fresh water to transport feces, urine, nitrogen, phosphorus – and then need inefficient wastewater treatment plants that leach 30% of all nutrients into downstream aquatic ecosystems, destroying them and causing dead zones. We’re really cheating ourselves in terms of this linear, modern system of dealing with waste in the water. Huge innovations are needed.”
On March 22, the UN water summit will take place in New York, led by the governments of the Netherlands and Tajikistan. World leaders are invited, but only a few are expected to attend, and 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 efforts thwarted by governments reluctant to support any form of international governance of the resource.
Henk Ovink, special envoy for international water affairs for the Netherlands, told The Guardian that the conference was crucial. “If we are to have hope of solving our climate crisis, our biodiversity crisis and other global food, energy and health challenges, we need to radically change our approach to how we value and manage water,” he said. “[This] is the best opportunity we have 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 calls to action on water
Manage the global water cycle as a global common good, which must be protected collectively and in our shared interests
Ensure safe and sufficient water for every vulnerable group and work with industry to scale up investments in water
Stop with too low prices for water. By properly pricing and targeted support for the poor, water can be used more efficiently, equitably and sustainably
Reduce the more than $1 trillion in agricultural and water subsidies each year, which often lead to excessive water consumption, and reduce leakage in water systems.
Establish “just water partnerships” that can mobilize finance for low- and middle-income countries
Take urgent action this decade on issues such as wetland restoration and depleted groundwater resources; recycling the water used in industry; switching to precision agriculture that uses water more efficiently; and have companies report on their “water footprint”
Reforming water management at the international level and including water in trade agreements. Governance must also consider women, farmers, indigenous peoples and others on the front lines of water conservation