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Turning the tide on the ‘triple’ global water crisis

April 20, 2023
Climate breakdown, biodiversity loss and human health are all impacted by a crisis in water management, according to a new report. Image: Jose Antonio Alba | Flickr Creative Commons

Decades of neglect of the global hydrological cycle have led to a triple water crisis which needs to be urgently addressed, according to a major report published last month.

Human water needs are not being met across the world, whilst global environmental change is causing increasingly extreme droughts, floods, storms and wildfires. Human actions are beginning to alter the global hydrological cycle and threaten the source of freshwater – precipitation – in many areas, the report warns.

Published by the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, “Turning the Tide: A Call to Collective Action” argues that urgent attention is needed to tackle these issues. The report states that a global transformation of the economics and governance of water is required to help sustain humans and nature in a rapidly changing world.

The report places water at the heart of the ongoing climate and biodiversity crises. “Every view of climate change that excludes water is incomplete,” says Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and co-chair of the Commission. “For the first time in human history, we can no longer count on the source of all freshwater, our precipitation.

“We are changing the entire global hydrological cycle,” continues Rockström. “Each 1°C of global warming adds about 7% moisture to the water cycle, supercharging and intensifying it, leading to more and more extreme weather events.”

The climatic and biodiversity impacts of the water crisis have significant impacts on human life. The report highlights the stark figures that more than two billion people still lack access to safely-managed water globally, whilst one child under five dies every 80 seconds from diseases caused by polluted water. The water crisis has pushed communities and regions across the Global South into acute food insecurity.

These impacts are not the consequences of freak events, population growth or economic development, the report argues. Instead, they are the product of decades of mismanagement of water – including pollution, over-abstraction and habitat destruction – which has pushed the global water cycle out of balance for the first time in human history. The report highlights the prospect of a 40% shortfall in freshwater supply by 2030, with acute shortages in water-stressed regions.

The Commission outlines the need to transform the economics and governance of water in ways which recognise and manage the water cycle as a global common good. This means bold collective action across political borders to restore and safeguard rivers, streams, lakes, groundwater and wetlands across catchments, countries and continents.

“We need new economic thinking to help move from reactively fixing to proactively shaping economies to become inclusive and sustainable,” says Mariana Mazzucato, Professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London and co-chair of the Commission. “Moving from sectoral to mission-oriented innovation policies with a common good approach can help us put equity and justice at the centre of water partnerships and bring multiple sectors together to tackle our biggest water challenges,” Mazzucato adds.

The report sets out seven points to structure a more sustainable and just water future. First, it stress that water is a global common good which connects communities and nations across borders. This means that collective action to protect the water cycle is highlighted as being in the interests of all. Second, there is the need to mobilise public and private bodies alongside local communities to apply and scale-up innovative new approaches to providing clean and safe water. The report emphasises the need to shape markets, direct investments and design policies towards positive water goals.

Third, the report argues that our economic systems underprice the value of water, which leads to unsustainable use of freshwater resources, and a lack of access to water for the poor and vulnerable in many areas. In other words, the multiple benefits that water provides must become visible on public and private balance sheets through better accounting of their natural resource values. This should be coupled with targeted subsidies to ensure low-income communities have access to clean water, the report states.

Fourth, there is the need to phase out government subsidies – which are estimate to total more than USD 700 billion annually – to the agriculture and water industries which encourage excessive water consumption and environmental damage. Fifth, Just Water Partnerships (similar to the Just Energy Transition Partnerships launched at COP26) which enable investments in water access, resilience and sustainability in low- and middle-income countries should be more widely established across the world.

Sixth, the report states that we are in a critical window of time to to shift the economics and governance of the global water systems to help tackle human, climate and biodiversity crises. The authors identify the need to upscale and mobilise finance towards innovative new technologies which can help store and recycle water, tackle inefficiencies in water infrastructure, and incentive water-friendly farming systems.

Finally, the report argues that there is a need for more joined-up and co-ordinated global governance of water. This process would require better dialogue and collective action across governments, to help strengthen existing environmental policies, make trade policies more sustainable, encourage better data collection to track water systems, and strengthen partnerships with global financial institutions. In the longer-term this could involve the establishment of a new Water Convention or Global Water pact which encourages greater collaboration across nations and communities.

“Solving the water challenge requires higher ambition, but it’s an ambition that is actually achievable if we work collectively and accelerate actions in the current decade,” says Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Senior Minister in Singapore and co-chair of the Commission.“We have the scientific expertise, we know what the basic policy reorientations should be, and there is no real lack of finance globally. The task is to organise these resources for a sustainable and globally-equitable future – that’s in every nation’s interest.”

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This article is supported by the MERLIN project.

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