At COP27, the global challenges faced because of escalating water crises are to be high on the agenda. Water sustains life and, in the face of a global climate crisis, its issues are pivotal and must be resolved. Here, Mark Smith, Strategic Director for the Water Sector at RSK Group, explores the primary driving forces behind this global challenge.
Water is perhaps the most vital natural resource on the planet. It is necessary for human survival and a critical input into our food, manufacturing and energy systems. It also sustains the ecosystems and climates on which both our built and natural worlds rely. According to the Pacific Institute, today we are putting more pressure on freshwater resources than ever before. Between a rapidly growing population and a shifting climate, water stress – and therefore water risk – is increasing around the world. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 is focused on water, with several sub-goals related to different water challenges we face globally. In efforts to combat these, we have seen promising progress, but there is much work to be done to make water sustainability a reality before the SDG target date of 2030.
Growing water demand and water scarcity
The world has plenty of potable water – enough for everyone. Despite being plentiful as a resource, it remains more difficult to reach in some regions than others. This challenge of access means some areas of the globe are experiencing high levels of water scarcity, which will only be exacerbated by escalating climate change and associated impacts.
According to the UN, water can be scarce for many reasons: demand for water may exceed supply, water infrastructure may be inadequate, or institutions may be failing to balance everyone’s needs. In every instance, water scarcity is an increasing problem on every continent, with poorer communities most severely affected. In 2019, over 733 million people lived in areas of high and critical levels of water stress. To build resilience against climate change and to serve an ever-growing population, an integrated and inclusive approach must be taken to managing this finite resource.
Water pollution and sanitation
Clean water changes everything. Every year, more people die from waterborne diseases than from all forms of violence, including war. Globally, 1.6 billion people lack safely managed drinking water, 2.5 billion lack safely managed sanitation, and at least 3 billion people have no knowledge of the quality of their drinking water due to a lack of monitoring, and no means to test it.
Nearly all human uses of water for economic purposes, from agricultural to industrial to municipal, result in water pollution. Currently, more than 80% of the world’s wastewater is discharged back into rivers, streams and oceans without any treatment, thereby causing widespread damage to ecosystems and contamination of critical human water sources. Furthermore, over 85% of the planet’s wetlands have been degraded in the last 300 years. Action to better manage our water resources will not only ensure improved sanitation for billions of people globally, but also protect our natural wetlands and ecosystems.
Drought and flood
In 2022 alone, Europe experienced its worst drought in 500 years, the western United States experienced its worst in more than 1000 years, and China suffered its worst drought ever. Although it was a natural event, scientists have calculated that the record drought across the northern hemisphere this summer was made at least 20 times more likely because of the climate crisis. Forecasts estimate that drought will displace 700 million people by 2030, most of whom will be displaced from rural to urban areas, which places more stress on already pressured central supplies. There are further repercussions: drought affects food production and can lead to hunger and famine in certain regions.
Every region across the globe is already experiencing weather and climate extremes, not just in terms of drought. As the planet warms, scientists anticipate increases in the frequency and intensity of flooding, precipitation and cyclones. Moreover, 2022 was a year of disastrous flooding that reached its peak in Pakistan, where a third of the country was inundated by heavy rainfall from June, killing more than 1000 people and wiping out agricultural production for many.
Freshwater ecosystems at risk
Freshwater ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Many species within these fragmented habitats have limited abilities to disperse as the environment changes, and water temperature and availability are climate dependent. Many of these natural systems are already exposed to numerous anthropogenic stressors. Climate change studies have, to date, focused on individuals or species populations, rather than the higher levels of organisation (i.e., communities, food webs and ecosystems) that would enable a better understanding of the true impact. That they are relatively isolated and physically fragmented within a largely terrestrial landscape makes fresh waters particularly vulnerable to climate change. Moreover, they are already heavily exploited by humans for the provision of goods and services. Here again, better managing these relationships and dependencies will enable progress towards healthy and thriving ecosystems that also deliver resource needs.
Towards a solution
We need to develop radical solutions and implement those solutions immediately if we are to see change. Water is a precious resource, of which there is plenty for everyone on the planet. To combat the challenges we face today, the problem needs to be reframed more as a water access problem, rather than solely as a water stress problem.
Access to clean water is a growing global problem, but the solutions must be local. In any locality, water access solutions can be as simple as improved water pump maintenance or as complex as designing and building large desalination plants with accompanying distribution systems. What these solutions have in common, and is a vital focus as we enter discussions at COP27, is that we have the technology and the systems in our hands today. We have the answers; we now need to implement them. In order to achieve that, we need robust governance and a willingness to share the payment burden worldwide so everyone can enjoy the benefits of permanent access to clean water. At COP27, all eyes will be on delegates to make sure commitments are made to finance such projects in the emerging economies most severely impacted by water access challenges. Although it is complex, the solutions are not difficult ones – what is needed is leadership and collaboration on a worldwide scale. This is what COP27 must deliver.