For four years, World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Risk Reports have identified water as one of the three most important challenges worldwide; this year, for the first time, it has moved to the top, as the biggest societal and economic risk for the next ten years.
The report assesses risks that are global in nature and have the potential to cause significant negative impact across entire countries and industries.
Global risks from overuse and shortage, poor water infrastructure and management came out on top – not as problems outlined by models and simulations that start from a diversity of assumptions; they are already facts today and are rapidly getting worse.
Water is key for life, central to societal development. Water risks affect industrialised and developing economies alike; repercussions of its overuse and increasing shortage are multiple and complex, widespread and severe. Let me mention five aspects:
1. Water for people: according to the World Health Organization there are still more than 700 million people without access to so-called ‘improved’ water – here the trend is positive: the proportion of the world’s population with access to improved drinking water sources increased from 76% to 89% globally between 1990 and 2012. But ‘improved’ is by no means ‘safe’. An article by Gérard Payen, former chairman of Aquafed and Member of the United Nations Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, states that close to 2 billion people use water that is unsafe and dangerous for their health, while 3.4 billion people use water of doubtful quality, at least from time to time. And these problems are getting worse, due to insufficient investment in water infrastructure – also in advanced economies.
2. Water for food: we start seeing the first problems in regions where natural buffers – groundwater reservoirs – have been used up in times of normal rainfall. In other words: media will see drought as the problem, but droughts come and go. The real problem is that we destroyed the ‘natural’ safety nets by overusing groundwater. So without a change in the way we use water, the global growth in population and prosperity are rapidly leading us into massive shortfalls in global cereal production.
3. In the past water was mostly abundant – at least up until the 1990s – so we have forgotten how important it is for growth in prosperity. Some episodes where power generation in thermal plants had to be slowed down because of lack of cooling watermay be early signs for more widespread problems ahead.
4. There is a cross-border, and increasingly geopolitical dimension, e.g., in the Nile basin, along the Panj river, Euphrates/Tigris, Indus, Mekong and Colorado, to mention but a few cross-border basins.
5.Water for the environment: this is about urgently needed wetlands, about biodiversity. But drying rivers also destroy human livelihoods, and sinking groundwater tables threaten human settlements.
Thanks to the WEF and the team behind the Global Risk Report for the careful, fact-based work. It sets the right focus for discussions in Davos and beyond.
This article is published in collaboration with The Nestle Water Challenge. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Author: Peter Brabeck-Letmathe is Chair of Swiss giant Nestlé
Image: People collect water at a camp for displaced people at M’poko International Airport in Bangui February 26, 2014. REUTERS/Camille Lepage.