We need to rethink how we manage our water systems — before it’s too late

(Credit: Unsplash)

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

Author: Morgan Booher, ECP Trainee — Centre for Nature and Climate, WaterECP, World Economic Forum, Alex Mung, Head of Water and Environmental Resilience, World Economic Forum


  • From floods to droughts, water-related natural disasters could cost global GDP $5.6 trillion between 2022 and 2050.
  • We need to reframe how we think about water, and see it for the opportunity it presents to improve lives everywhere.
  • In 6 months, the UN Water Conference will convene in New York to address global water systems — a historic opportunity to create the momentum needed to achieve the sustainable development goal on water by 2030.

Extreme flooding in Pakistan has caused years of damage and killed thousands of people. Historic droughts in China have led parts of the Yangtze River to run dry. Prolonged water scarcity has disrupted agricultural and energy production in Europe and the Western United States. The world over, our water systems are in crisis.

Whether too much, too little or too polluted, our water systems are creeping toward a precipice as a result of mismanagement, under-investment and climate impacts.

A recent study suggests water-related natural disasters, from floods to droughts, could cost global GDP $5.6 trillion between 2022 and 2050. In 2020, companies reported maximum financial impacts of water risks at $301 billion — five times higher than the cost of addressing them.

Exactly 6 months from today, the Netherlands and Tajikistan will co-host the UN Water Conference in New York. It is a historic moment, which hasn’t happened since 1977, and an opportunity to reassess our efforts to guarantee global water security and ecosystem resilience.

Water plays an integral role across our economies, health and wellbeing and the environment. This means the UN Water Conference can be a watershed moment not only for the water agenda, but for the full sustainable development agenda.

To create the systemic change needed, delegates’ efforts should be focused on the toughest challenges facing water systems. Action needs to be mobilized and channelled at these issues of the conference is going to be as impactful for our water systems as we need it to be.

We have barely begun to acknowledge the importance of the water-food-energy nexus and how the interconnectedness plays out — both impacts and opportunities in today’s global economic and geopolitical contexts.

Water, energy and decarbonization

We still fail to make the connection between water risk and many global trends and goals — failing to capture tangible opportunities and jeopardizing our efforts to build a sustainable economy.

For example, in the world’s push to achieve a low-carbon economy, water is often forgotten. The focus for decarbonization often lies on transportation, manufacturing, or other industrial processes, but water utilities are responsible for two percent of total annual global emissions — about as much as the shipping industry. Water cannot be excluded when designing policies to reduce emissions.

Water utility companies must make efforts to decarbonize their activities, especially through the energy-intensive process of treating and processing wastewater.

Water and energy are inextricably linked. Globally, energy production and distribution relate to about 10% of water withdrawals and 3% of total water use. As demand for water and energy increases, their linkages will intensify. This could be problematic in a development context as the demand for both resources will grow at a much higher rate than supply. The shift to renewable energy is vulnerable to lack of access to water — it is key in the mining of important metals for batteries and solar panels and necessary for cooling. Nine liters of water are required to produce 1 kilogram of hydrogen. Because we cannot separate these issues, we must consider them together.

When we think of water, we must acknowledge its ties to our other most important resources.

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Clean water is a resource

From handwashing during the COVID-19 pandemic to the devastating statistics related to deaths from water-borne illness each year, clean water is essential to securing public health.

And yet, 4.5 billion people worldwide live without access to sanitary toilet facilities, and 2.3 billion lack basic handwashing facilities at home. Addressing these issues is key to building a healthy and productive population. Without improvements, this failure to provide clean water and properly treat wastewater will determine our response to the next pandemic.

Water is also a primary vector in the spread of anti-microbial resistance (AMR) and AMR diseases. Waterborne AMR already costs between $1 to $5 billion per year in additional healthcare expenditures — this number is expected to increase. The costs of managing the disease burden associated with waterborne AMR are concentrated in the Global South and are in many cases unaffordable.

As we face a mounting food security crisis, our agricultural supply is also under threat from AMR, as resistance to antimicrobial pest controls and antibiotics grows. This costs the agricultural sector up to cost the agricultural sector up to $6 billion per year. The expected human and economic costs of waterborne AMR will only grow in severity if these trends remain unchecked.

Delivering actionable data

Our water-related data is too fragmented and out of date. Though our water systems are fundamentally connected, the associated data is siloed. We cannot make data-informed, impactful decisions without access to the full breadth of information.

Not only do we need to aggregate and maintain water-related data, but we also need to integrate information on projected population and industrial growth, as well as the latest climate modeling.

This data should be publicly accessible. With more transparent information, citizens can hold decision makers accountable. With emerging technology, this is possible — it just requires investment and cooperation.

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What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?

Water security – both sustainable supply and clean quality – is a critical aspect in ensuring healthy communities. Yet, our world’s water resources are being compromised.

Today, 80% of our wastewater flows untreated back into the environment, while 780 million people still do not have access to an improved water source. By 2030, we may face a 40% global gap between water supply and demand.

The World Economic Forum’s Water Possible Platform is supporting innovative ideas to address the global water challenge.

The Forum supports innovative multi-stakeholder partnerships including the 2030 Water Resources Group, which helps close the gap between global water demand and supply by 2030 and has since helped facilitate $1Billion of investments into water.

Other emerging partnerships include the 50L Home Coalition, which aims to solve the urban water crisis, tackling both water security and climate change; and the Mobilizing Hand Hygiene for All Initiative, formed in response to close the 40% gap of the global population not having access to handwashing services during COVID-19.

Want to join our mission to address the global water challenge? Read more in our impact story.

Water systems in the global sustainable development agenda

Our water infrastructure faces a $7 trillion financing gap. To mobilize the necessary funds, we need to reframe how we think about water. We must position it as an enabler to support the achievement of other global priorities, not the end result. Rather than bang the drum on the need for every hospital to have basic water services — 1 in 4 do not — emphasize the reduction of mortality rates and show how basic water services contribute to that reduction.

By illustrating where addressing water issues can add value, both economic and social, to other issues on the global agenda, we can begin fill the $7 trillion gap.

Solutions must be impactful across different sectors. Positioning water as an enabler and solution across multiple economic and social priorities is the best chance we have at success in achieving the Sustainable Development Agenda.

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