Almost half of the world’s workforce - 1.5 billion people - work in water related sectors in today’s economy. This link between water and jobs is the focus of the 2016 World Water Development Report launched today, on World Water Day. With water ranked as the number one global risk of highest concern in the next 10 years, perhaps the most pressing question to explore this - is the world is at risk of losing these 1.5 billion jobs?

Agriculture is the most vulnerable sector, as it is almost entirely dependent on water. Water availability, and the acute effects of droughts and floods will have a direct impact on the livelihoods of over 1 billion people who work in the agricultural sector. As a result of the drought in California, it was estimated to cost the state – the world’s fifth largest supplier of food – an estimated $2.2 billion in 2014, and the loss of 17,100, or 3.8%, of the state's farm jobs. An even more extreme scenario has manifest itself in the Indian state of Maharasthra where it reported that over 3000 farmers committed suicide in 2015. While a number of factors likely caused such a tragic ending, extreme weather events devastating their crops and harvests likely played a role.

Image: World Water Assessment Programme


Water availability and quality are also increasingly becoming a top risk for industry. Companies facing water scarcity are reassessing corporate strategy plans, growth potential, and investment decisions, potentially putting in jeopardy existing jobs or the creation of new job opportunities. A recent example in Chile saw the construction of a large gold, silver and copper mine suspended indefinitely over concerns about local groundwater pollution, and the company ordered to build water management infrastructure.

Meanwhile, in Africa, SABMiller, a leading global brewing company, has publicly stated that while there are top targets for expansion on the continent such as Nigeria and Zambia, these growth markets are also considered high risk because of water availability, even warning that its existing brewing operations may have to relocate as competition between users for water resources intensifies.

While agriculture and industry such as consumer goods, energy, and extractives have traditionally been more in the spotlight when it comes to water, more and more industries are making the connection with water risk. A recent white paper examined the impacts of water stress and scarcity on tourism in the Asia-Pacific region, estimating 500 million tourists visited the region in 2014 placing added water demand pressure on a region that is already experiencing serious water stress in 75% of its countries. Insufficient, unreliable, and poor quality water will become limits to growth and potentially deter tourism from existing markets – a significant impact to an industry that contributed approximately 10% of global GDP in 2015, and support 284 million people in employment.

The examples so far have explored water risk to specific economic sectors, but one critical dimension to the water and jobs narrative is the direct human health impact. It is estimated at least 1.8 billion people world-wide drink unsafe and contaminated water resulting in sickness. For those employed in the workforce, this translates to time off from work and lost productivity. According to a recent UNEP report, over half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by people suffering from water related diseases.

Unfortunately these examples merely scratch the surface. Water and Jobs is the theme for this year’s World Water Day, which aims to highlight and focus the world's attention on how enough quantity and quality of water can change workers’ lives and livelihoods – and even transform societies and economies.

The challenge is to channel and translate this heightened awareness into sustained energy, action, and results. Recognizing this need for action and mobilizing stakeholders from across sectors in support of the water agenda, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, and President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, announced at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2016 the intention to create a High Level Panel on Water to mobilize urgent action on the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for water, sanitation and related targets. The Panel will be co-chaired by the President of Mauritius and the President of Mexico, and will also include heads of government from developing and developed countries.

This will be a unique and important opportunity to raise the water agenda to the highest political level and to ensure improved water resource management – from planning and allocation and delivering safe drinking water and sanitation services, to treating waste-water and ensuring water quality – becomes a central pillar to national and regional economic development planning and strategies for job creation. To realize this vision, partnerships and public-private-civil society coalitions will be required. The World Economic Forum’s Global Water Initiative is delighted to support the High Level Panel and its goals.