A crackdown on corruption in the water sector and increasing investment in infrastructure are essential to avoid conflicts over water, “life’s most vital resource”, a United Nations University report said on Tuesday.

Population growth, economic insecurity, corruption and climate change threaten the stability and the very existence of some nations, the report said.

“We need to be well aware that this is a serious threat … not just in the developing world but in the developed world also,” Bob Sandford, lead author of the report, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from Alberta, Canada.

“We have places even in Canada that are struggling because of the persistence and repetition of extreme weather events.”

As the world gears up to adopt a new set of development objectives later this year, to replace expiring U.N. Millennium Development Goals, unmet water targets threaten to reverse gains on universally shared goals like security, the report said.

Removing “harmful and unproductive” subsidies and tackling corruption in the water sector could free up much-needed resources to meet the post-2015 sustainable development objectives and avert international tensions and water-related conflicts, it said.

“In the context of sustainable development (corruption in the water sector) is a crime against all of us,” Sandford said.

“This must end if sustainable development is to be achieved and global security assured.”

More than two billion people gained access to clean water between 1990 and 2012, but almost 750 million are still denied what the United Nations recognises as a human right.

The cost of achieving post-2015 goals on water and sanitation development, and maintenance and replacement of infrastructure, is estimated at $1.2 trillion to $2.4 trillion per year, the report said.

Removing subsidies, including those for the petroleum, gas and coal industries, worth $1.9 trillion a year, would free up resources that could be directed towards achieving the water goal, it said.

Additional resources can be freed up by eliminating illicit financial flows, estimated at 30 percent of all water sector funding, the report said, citing World Bank and U.N. figures.

Overall, this would make available for the water sector a minimum of $3.11 trillion per year, the report said.

Water, named one of the top three global risks two years running by the World Economic Forum, “underpins sustainable development more than any other (natural resource),” it said.

The global water crisis is caused not by a shortage of water, but by a shortage of water where and when it’s needed, a situation made worse by climate change and water-related disasters, it said.

Although most cross-border water disputes have so far resulted in cooperation rather than conflict, this may change because the water supply of 2.9 billion people in 48 countries is expected to fall short of needs in just 10 years, the report said.

“Faced with a life or death decision, people tend to do whatever they must to survive,” it said.

Sandford singled out the effective management of water resources and scaling up investments in infrastructure as the most critical tasks in making development sustainable.

“It’s not impossible for us to do, but it’s getting harder and harder if we don’t move now,” he said.

This article is published in collaboration with Thomson Reuters Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

To keep up with the Agenda subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Author: Magda Mis is a Production Editor at Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Image: A graffiti of a water bottle that reads “water” and a graffiti of a dead fish are pictured in part of the Jaquari reservoir, during a drought in Vargem, Sao Paulo state January 28, 2015. REUTERS/Roosevelt Cassio