March 16, 2021
By Cora Kammeyer
Water is one of the most valuable resources on the planet — we need it to survive, to stay clean and healthy, to grow food, to run businesses, to support ecosystems, and so much more. And yet clean, accessible, abundant water is often taken for granted, in part because its cost rarely reflects its true value. But anyone who has spent even a day, or a few hours, without access to water knows its vital importance. Still today over 2.2 billion people globally lack access to safe drinking water.
Every year since 1993, the United Nations holds a World Water Day to raise awareness about the importance of water, the magnitude of the water challenges we face, and the need for urgent action. The theme of World Water Day 2021 is valuing water. Water has been mismanaged and undervalued in our societies, and to solve the global water crisis we must integrate the true value of water into management and decision making — from national governments to global corporations to local cities and farms.
The Global Water Crisis
As a result of poor water management in the face of growing demands on water resources, the world faces multiple water crises. Millions of people lack access to safe, reliable water. Billions of gallons of untreated sewage and wastewater are discharged into the environment, polluting our waterways. Rivers are running dry and lakes are turning into dust beds due to unsustainable water withdrawals. And now, climate change is drastically affecting our water systems, worsening existing water problems.
Insufficient drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene
Despite humanity’s many advancements, we still fail to provide safe drinking water and adequate sanitation and hygiene services to all people. Globally, there are over two billion people without reliable access to safe drinking water, and over four billion without access to sanitation services (i.e., toilets). While this is largely seen as a problem of the developing world, even in wealthy nations there are communities who cannot rely on safe drinking water from their taps, and people experiencing extreme poverty and homelessness who lack access to toilets and showers.
In many parts of the world, human demands for water have outstripped the sustainably available supply. This is due to physical water scarcity — areas of the world that are arid and drought-prone — but also due to how and where our society has built and managed water-intensive cities and farms. Today, over four billion people live in regions where demands for water consistently equal or exceed supplies. At current rates, global demand for freshwater is on track to exceed supply by 40 percent in 2030.
Poor water quality
In addition to water supply challenges, we also have water quality challenges. More than 80 percent of all wastewater is released back into the environment without any treatment. This causes severe health hazards, both for people and ecosystems. It also ties into the challenges of safe drinking water and sanitation.
Destruction of freshwater ecosystems
Because of water demands that exceed supplies and because of water pollution, our freshwater ecosystems — the plant and animal life that relies on rivers, streams, lakes, and the land around them —are in dire straits. Half of the world’s major rivers are seriously depleted, and over 60 percent of ecosystems globally are currently degraded or being used unsustainably.
While the challenge with water is often not enough of it, sometimes the problem is too much water, resulting in catastrophic flooding. This risk has worsened as we have increasingly developed cities along rivers, in places that have historically naturally flooded. Every year, the damage to property, infrastructure, and economic productivity exceeds a global cost of $6 trillion.
Water-related violent conflict
We have seen conflicts over water resources increasing as water challenges, particularly water scarcity, worsen. We also see water used as a weapon, such as militias or rebel groups cutting off communities’ water supplies, destroying water pipelines, or contaminating wells. This is particularly evident in the Middle East, a predominantly desert region where water resources have always been precious and scarce, though we see it all over the world.
Rising atmospheric temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions from human development — climate change — is making the global water crisis worse. There are two primary ways this is happening: climate change is altering precipitation patterns, and it is increasing the intensity and frequency of extreme events.
First, climate change is disrupting the patterns of when, where, how often, how much, and in what physical state (rain or snow) precipitation falls. The hydrologic variability — wetter or drier, more snow or more rain — will vary across geographies. While scientists have climate and hydrologic models that provide high-level prediction of how this will affect us, there is significant uncertainty, which makes long-term water planning very difficult.
Second, climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme events like storms, floods, and droughts. These extreme events are already increasing — we are already seeing the impacts of a changing climate in natural disasters around the world.
Lastly, it is important to remember the equity dimension of the global water crisis. Water and climate challenges will affect every single person on this planet, but communities’ and individuals’ capacity to weather these impacts and live healthy, thriving lives will vary widely. The issues discussed above have a disproportionate impact on impoverished and otherwise disadvantaged communities that have fewer resources to prepare for, adapt to, and recover from water crises, and less capacity to advocate for the changes needed to protect their communities.
The Value of Water
When learning about the global water crisis, it is important to remember all that is at stake. For World Water Day, UN Water laid out five key dimensions of water’s value.
Watersheds. All water comes from ecosystems and returns to them. The world’s watersheds provide vital ecosystems services that help provide clean, plentiful water for all living beings on earth. In addition to water itself, healthy watersheds help provide clean air, fight climate change, prevent erosion, support biodiversity, and much more.
Water infrastructure. The extensive networks of pipes, pumps, reservoirs, and canals that exist all over the world help get water to us safely and conveniently. They support the movement, storage, treatment, and delivery of water — often right to our taps at home.
Water services. The provision of safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services is critical to keeping people healthy and safe. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, having clean water and soap for handwashing is imperative to preventing the spread of disease. Research shows that for every $1 invested in water and sanitation, $4.30 of economic return is generated through increased productivity p(including less sick time).
Water as an input. Water is a valuable ingredient to business success across all sectors. Every industry from energy production, to agriculture, to manufacturing, to data storage, to restaurants and storefronts requires water to operate. Thus, water is an important input to the global economy.
Social, cultural, religious, and recreational dimensions of water. Water and watersheds play various roles in people’s social, cultural, and religious practices. We swim and play in rivers and lakes. We get joy and revitalization from connecting with nature. Certain bodies of water hold special significance to different cultures and religions. In particular, water is central to many indigenous cultures and practices around the world.
In what ways do you value water? In your home, in your work, in your hobbies? Share your story on social media using the hashtags #WorldWaterDay and #Water2Me. See what others are saying here.
A More Sustainable and Resilient Approach
The global water crisis presents our communities and economies with major challenges and risks, but it also provides us an opportunity — in fact, an imperative — to take a new approach. The Pacific Institute has an ambitious goal to catalyze the transition to a water resilient future in the face of climate change by the year 2030. Read about how we are creating this future here.