If you want to make progress on all the major global challenges, start with water

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Madeleine Bell, Strategy & Special Projects, Desolenator


  • No individual, city or business is exempt from needing clean water in the long run.
  • We are perilously close to 2025, when it is predicted that half of the world’s population won’t have reliable access to clean water.
  • We must refocus actions for increasing sustainable water production to underpin progress in all the other challenges we face, from SDGs to Corporate Risk.

As we move into 2021, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges that our planet faces. We must, therefore, refocus our attention on the interventions that simultaneously catalyse progress in multiple challenges. And there can be no stronger building block than clean water.

Whether used for potable (drinking) or non-potable purposes, clean water is our most valuable and fundamental resource, and ultimately underpins the success or failure of every other challenge that we face.

Yet we are perilously close to 2025, when it is predicted that half of the world’s population will not have reliable access to clean water, from California to Jordan to the South Pacific islands. Even my hometown of London, rarely thought of as a place lacking in water, is listed as the ninth global city at critical risk of ‘Day Zero’, and likely to experience serious shortfalls in the next five years.

By 2040, there will be a 40% deficit in the supply of water available compared with global demand. No individual, city or business is exempt from needing water as a long-term resource.

Therefore, whilst 2020 has thrown government, corporate and individual agendas temporarily off-course, we cannot afford to let the issue of clean water supply disappear from the global dialogue.

More importantly, we must not lose sight of the opportunity and positive progress that we can make when a reliable water supply is established.

Clean water first

The Sustainable Development Goals offer a simple way to visualise this. These 17 goals (in no order of priority) are the focal targets adopted by the signatories of the United Nations in 2015.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Image: United Nations

However, another way of viewing the 17 global challenges is, firstly, consider their reliance on clean water.

The Sustainable Development Goals are all dependent, in one way or another, on clean water.

By prioritising accessible and reliable water supplies, we fundamentally increase our progress towards:

  • Zero hunger (2): Agriculture accounts for 70% of water use worldwide, therefore a sustainable and productive agro-food sector requires water production to match the growth in food demand.
  • Better health and wellbeing (3): Water for drinking and sanitation remains the most basic way to fight disease and prevent water-borne illnesses, such as those which cause 297,000 deaths of children under the age of 5 each year. In addition, clean water is vital for successful immunisation, meaning it will be a crucial part of the fight against COVID-19.
  • Gender equality (5): Women and girls are responsible for water collection in 80% of households that lack water on premises, creating a time burden which impinges on education and other productive opportunities.
  • Industrial productivity (9): The World Economic Forum has ranked ‘Water Stress’ as a Top 5 Global Risk in Terms of Impact for the past five years. Water stress makes supply more unpredictable (and expensive), affecting operational capacity, profit margins and reputation.
  • Climate action (13): Water production has a huge hidden environmental impact, producing 76 million tonnes of CO2 per annum for desalination (a.k.a. seawater purification). This is likely dwarfed by the (as-yet) unquantifiable impact on the rest of the supply chains that bring water to end-users via boats, trucks and even planes.
  • Life on land (15): Humans buy 1 million plastic bottles a minute, around half of which are estimated to be for drinking water. National Geographic estimates that fewer than 10% of plastic bottles are recycled, with the rest burnt, dumped in landfills or end up as ocean waste.
  • Peace (16): The impact of water scarcity on migration and conflicts is an increasingly discussed factor in geopolitical dialogues, highlighting the importance of better water strategies to mitigate forced movements, both domestically and internationally. Exacerbated by climate change, up to 700 million people could be displaced by 2030 if no alternative solutions to securing water are found.

The world is still fatigued by the unique challenges of 2020, but we are buoyed by the positive global dialogues such as COP26 and the UN Decade for Oceans. This shows it is more important than ever to focus on high-impact interventions.

Reliable, accessible and sustainable supplies of clean water are the strongest foundation we have to ensure the long-term success of our other challenges. Without it, we are effectively building on sand and risk wasting precious time, financing and resources.

Access to clean water: this must be the place to start.

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