Global fresh water demand will outstrip supply by 40% by 2030

Global fresh water demand will outstrip supply by 40% by 2030

Fiona Harvey, Environment editor
The Guardian 17 March 2023
with an extract from the full report

Global fresh water demand will outstrip supply by 40% by 2030, say experts

Landmark report urges overhaul of wasteful water practices around world on eve of crucial UN summit

The world is facing an imminent water crisis, with demand expected to outstrip the supply of fresh water by 40% by the end of this decade, experts have said on the eve of a crucial UN water summit.

Governments must urgently stop subsidising the extraction and overuse of water through misdirected agricultural subsidies, and industries from mining to manufacturing must be made to overhaul their wasteful practices, according to a landmark report on the economics of water.

Nations must start to manage water as a global common good, because most countries are highly dependent on their neighbours for water supplies, and overuse, pollution and the climate crisis threaten water supplies globally, the report’s authors say.

Johan Rockstrom, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and co-chair of the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, and a lead author of the report, told the Guardian the world’s neglect of water resources was leading to disaster. “The scientific evidence is that we have a water crisis. We are misusing water, polluting water, and changing the whole global hydrological cycle, through what we are doing to the climate. It’s a triple crisis.”

Rockstrom’s fellow Global Commission on the Economics of Water co-chair Mariana Mazzucato, a professor at University College London and also a lead author of the report, added: “We need a much more proactive, and ambitious, common good approach. We have to put justice and equity at the centre of this, it’s not just a technological or finance problem.”

The report marks the first time the global water system has been scrutinised comprehensively and its value to countries – and the risks to their prosperity if water is neglected – laid out in clear terms. Like with the Stern review of the economics of the climate crisis in 2006 and the Dasgupta review of the economics of biodiversity in 2021, the report authors hope to highlight the crisis in a way that policymakers and economists can recognise.

Many governments still do not realise 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 neighbouring countries – known as “green” water because it is held in soils and delivered from transpiration in forests and other ecosystems, when plants take up water from the soil and release vapour into the air from their leaves.

The report sets out seven key recommendations, including reshaping the global governance of water resources, scaling up investment in water management through public-private partnerships, pricing water properly and establishing “just water partnerships” to raise finance for water projects in developing and middle-income countries.

More than $700bn (£575bn) of subsidies globally go to agriculture and water each year and these often fuel excessive water consumption. Water leakage must also be urgently addressed, 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 will be no agricultural revolution unless we fix water,” said Rockstrom. “Behind all these challenges we are facing, there’s always water, and we never talk about water.”

Many of the ways in which water is used are inefficient and in need of change, with Rockstrom pointing to developed countries’ sewage systems. “It’s quite remarkable that we use safe, fresh water to carry excreta, urine, nitrogen, phosphorus – and then need to have inefficient wastewater treatment plants that leak 30% of all the nutrients into downstream aquatic ecosystems and destroy them and cause dead zones. We’re really cheating ourselves in terms of this linear, waterborne modern system of dealing with waste. There are massive innovations required.”

The UN water summit, led by the governments of the Netherlands and Tajikistan, will take place in New York on 22 March. World leaders are invited but only a few are expected to attend, with most countries to be represented by ministers or high-ranking officials. It will mark the first time in more than four decades the UN has met to discuss water, with previous attempts stymied by governments reluctant to countenance any form of international governance of the resource.

Henk Ovink, a special envoy for international water affairs for the Netherlands, told the Guardian the conference was crucial. “If we are to have a hope of solving our climate crisis, our biodiversity crisis and other global challenges on food, energy and health, we need to radically change our approach in how we value and manage water,” he said. “[This] is the best opportunity we have to put water at the centre of global action to ensure people, crops and the environment continue to have the water they need.”

Seven calls to action on water

1. Manage the global water cycle as a global common good, to be protected collectively and in our shared interests.

2. Ensure safe and adequate water for every vulnerable group, and work with industry to scale up investment in water.

3. Stop underpricing water. Proper pricing and targeted support for the poor will enable water to be used more efficiently, more equitably, and more sustainably

4. Reduce the more than $700bn of subsidies in agriculture and water each year, which often fuel excessive water consumption, and reduce leakage in water systems.

5. Establish “just water partnerships” which can mobilise finance for low- and middle-income countries.

6. Take urgent action this decade on issues such as restoring wetlands and depleted groundwater resources;, recycling the water used in industry; moving to precision agriculture that uses water more efficiently; and having companies report on their “water footprint”.

7. Reform the governance of water at an international level, and including water in trade agreements. Governance must also take into account women, farmers, indigenous people and others in the frontline of water conservation.

SOURCE: The Guardian…

Extract from

Turning the Tide: A Call to Collective Action

The Global Commission on the Economics of Water
March 2023

A seven-point call to collective action

A sustainable and just water future can be achieved. It requires transforming the economics and restructuring the governance of water. We must take actions that are bolder, more integrated, across sectors and more networked at national, regional and global levels.

First, we must manage the global water cycle as a global common good, to be protected collectively and in the interests of all. It means recognising that communities and nations are connected regionally and globally; that water is increasingly intertwined with climate change and the depletion of the planet’s natural capital; that water is critical to food security as well as all the SDGs; and that water cannot be put back on a sustainable trajectory without justice and equity in every corner of the globe.

Second, we must adopt an outcomes-focused, mission-driven approach to water encompassing all the key roles it plays in human well-being. We must deliver on the human right to safe water. We must act collectively to stabilise the global water cycle. It means mobilising multiple stakeholders, public, private, civil society and local community; utilising innovation policy to catalyse solutions to concrete problems; and scaling up investments in water through new modalities of public-private partnerships. And we must ensure that the value that is created collectively gets shared widely.

Third, we must cease underpricing water. Proper pricing along with targeted support for the poor will enable water to be used more efficiently in every sector, more equitably in every population and more sustainably both locally and globally. We must also account for water’s non-economic value in decision-making to ensure we protect nature, on which the planet and all life depend.

Fourth, we must phase out some USD 700 billion of subsidies in agriculture and water each year, which tend to generate excessive water consumption and other environmentally damaging practices. We must drastically reduce leakages in water systems (“non-revenue water”) that cost billions annually, by prioritising sustained maintenance efforts. We must accelerate efforts to require disclosure of water footprints, which are key to steering capital and consumer preferences in favour of sustainable practices. Each of these steps will allow us to re-direct resources towards incentivising water conservation and universal access.

Fifth, we should establish Just Water Partnerships (JWPs) to enable investments in water access, resilience and sustainability in low- and middle-income countries, using approaches that contribute to both national development goals and the global common good. JWPs should drive down the cost of capital by using the complementary strengths of every stream of finance—rechannelling today’s inefficient domestic subsidies, leveraging on the multilateral development banks and development finance institutions, and crowding in private companies, banks and institutional investors, and philanthropic money. The economic returns on these investments will vastly exceed their costs. The JWPs should also maximise synergies with climate change strategies and national programs to achieve inclusive growth.

Sixth, we must move ahead on the opportunities that can move the needle significantly in the current decade. Fortifying freshwater storage systems, especially the natural assets such as wetlands and groundwater, which have been dangerously depleted. Developing the urban circular water economy especially by recycling industrial and urban wastewater, which remains largely untreated. Reducing water footprints in manufacturing, including the reuse of water in producing critical materials such as the lithium we need for electrification. Shifting agriculture to precision irrigation, less water-intensive crops and drought-resilient farming that can also raise incomes. We must drive down the costs of technologies in each case by adopting them at scale.

Seventh, underpinning all our efforts, we must reshape multilateral governance of water, which is currently fragmented and not fit for purpose. Trade policy must be used as a tool for more sustainable use of water, by incorporating water conservation standards in trade agreements, highlighting wasteful water subsidies and ensuring that trade policies do not exacerbate water scarcity in water-stressed regions. Multilateralism should also support capacity building for all, prioritise gender equality in water decision-making, and empower farmers, women, youth, Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and consumers who are at the frontlines of water conservation.


Last updated 19 March 2023