Photo: ©Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images for Circle of Blue

The world’s demand for fresh water is growing so fast that, by 2030, agriculture, industry and expanding cities will face such scarce supplies that the confrontation could disrupt economic development and threaten political stability and public health.

People in places as disparate as north Africa, Central Valley, California, and India’s northern states, among others, are already facing similar threats to their livelihoods, while population growth, ageing infrastructure, pollution and resource-intensive ways of life are putting a huge strain on local fresh water supplies.

By 2050, demand for food, water and energy is projected to grow by 30% to 50%. Meanwhile, more than 750 million people do not have adequate access to safe drinking water.

How can we hope to meet these demands without integrated policy reform and comprehensive solutions that take local conditions and a diversity of stakeholders into account? As it stands, ineffective financial incentives, institutional structures and a lack of trusted data make joint co-operation almost impossible.

The world’s capacity to respond is in doubt.

But some promising models are emerging quickly. The 2011 World Economic Forum book, Water Security – the Food, Energy, Water and Climate Nexus, and a recent conference about water, food and energy, hosted in Bonn by the German Government, framed the issues and developed comprehensive, cross-cutting science and policy recommendations.

Many governments are implementing innovative new policies to improve water management. Civil society, governments and businesses are coming together in organizations such as the 2030 Water Resources Group to help build common and comprehensive databases on water issues.

The Alliance for Water Stewardship and the UN Global Compact’s CEOWaterMandate are pioneering a new model of corporate water policy and management that facilitates collaboration among businesses, governments, NGOs and communities.

However, at current rates, the challenges are outpacing the solutions. We need to share accurate data more effectively to inform collective policy action. Even in our data-flooded age, localized information is often minimal, outdated or inaccessible.

We need a common open-source platform for collecting, interpreting and sharing trusted data from a variety of sources.

We need more sharing of innovations in technology, practice and policy.

We need to understand local and regional needs.

We need to engage with all stakeholder communities in a spirit of transparency and accountability.

We need to improve communications across business, government, NGOs, media and citizens to encourage greater policy awareness and participation.

Serious global investment in water security – financial and political – will nurture economic development, create a more stable political environment, and give hope and health to millions of people.

It’s the most powerful investment of time and energy we can make.

Authors: Stuart Orr, Global Freshwater Programme Manager, WWF, with support from J. Carl Ganter, Director, Circle of Blue, and Jeff Seabright, Vice-President, Environment and Water Resources, The Coca Cola Company; Members and Chair respectively of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Water Security

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