• Greater public-private collaboration is needed to improve access to clean water and mitigate climate change risks.
  • Investment, such as blended finance, and innovative technology is needed to develop sustainable water solutions.
  • Initiatives, like the recently launched Resilient Water Accelerator, demonstrate how finance directed to vital water services could achieve this.

This year started with renewed hope: vaccines to stop a deadly pandemic and increased global cooperation to repair the economic damage. As governments around the world deploy trillions of dollars in stimulus spending we have a unique opportunity to build a better, more inclusive future to tackle an existential threat even bigger than COVID-19: climate change.

With less than 10 years to reach the UN Sustainable Development Goals there is one key investment which will get right to the heart of the problems we face, and which can help provide solutions: water. Water is the thread that links the diverse impacts of our health and climate crises. Changing the way that we value this critical resource will unlock its potential to bring about better health, reduced migration, better food security, and more effective climate action.

That is the aim of the Valuing Water Initiative (VWI), launched by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the World Economic Forum in 2019. Since then, the initiative has sought to put the UN Valuing Water Principles into practice, and to inspire others to do the same.

One of the principles that guides this work is that valuing water lies not just in a raw economic value, but in recognizing that water’s value means different things to different groups and interests, spanning the economic, cultural, spiritual, and environmental spheres. This means it’s necessary to engage stakeholders broadly, to identify water’s worth in all its numerous, competing uses, and to reflect this multiplicity of views in decision-making.

But 785 million people – that’s 1 in 10 – are still living without clean water close to home. Without this vital resource, lives are blighted by sickness, poverty and the endless drudgery of collecting water. Women and girls around the world already collectively spend an estimated 200 million hours a year – or around 23,000 years – walking to fetch water. Four billion people live in water scarce areas where at some points of every year, demands exceeds supply – and that number is predicted to rise to five billion by 2040.

Changing the way that we value water will unlock its potential to bring about better health, reduced migration, better food security, and more effective climate action.

—Henk H.W.J. Ovink and Katherine Lampen.

Climate change is making things even harder, exacerbating problems caused by poor management of water resources, lack of political will, and inadequate investment. And yet, the investment in ensuring that everyone, no matter where they live, has a reliable and safe water source to help make communities become more resilient to climate change, is completely inadequate when compared to the scale of the growing crisis.

Research has found that under 1% of total global climate investment goes to protecting water services for poor communities, despite the fact that the impacts of climate change are predominantly felt through its effects on water – through droughts, floods, and rising sea levels – all of which impact access to clean water.

How do we change this?

We must come together and mobilise all sections of society to invest in integrated, inclusive, and sustainable water programmes and projects. Those of us lucky enough never to have to think about our water supply need to change our mindset to one that truly values this fundamental resource and works towards making sure that everyone has enough water for their needs.

It is an investment which makes sense on every level, not least economically. According to the UN, every $1 invested in safe drinking water in urban areas yields more than $3 in saved medical costs and added productivity. For every $1 invested in basic sanitation, society makes $2.50 back. In rural areas, $7 is gained or saved for every $1 invested in clean drinking water.

water, health, environment

What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?

Water security – both sustainable supply and clean quality – is a critical aspect in ensuring healthy communities. Yet, our world’s water resources are being compromised.

Today, 80% of our wastewater flows untreated back into the environment, while 780 million people still do not have access to an improved water source. By 2030, we may face a 40% global gap between water supply and demand.

The World Economic Forum’s Water Possible Platform is supporting innovative ideas to address the global water challenge.

The Forum supports innovative multi-stakeholder partnerships including the 2030 Water Resources Group, which helps close the gap between global water demand and supply by 2030 and has since helped facilitate $1Billion of investments into water.

Other emerging partnerships include the 50L Home Coalition, which aims to solve the urban water crisis, tackling both water security and climate change; and the Mobilizing Hand Hygiene for All Initiative, formed in response to close the 40% gap of the global population not having access to handwashing services during COVID-19.

Want to join our mission to address the global water challenge? Read more in our impact story.

But it is not just return on investment we need to consider. The market can address supply and demand through price signals, but this is separate from the political considerations that involve the poorest individuals who could be priced out of the market.

In an emerging country context, blended finance will be critical to address the scale of the issue. The public and private sector must come together to ensure no community is left behind, with governments taking on up-front costs, while the private sector manages impact funding and technologies.

Initiatives, such as the recently launched Resilient Water Accelerator – which aims to protect 50 million people from climate and health threats with clean water – demonstrate how this blend could practically work. Led by HRH The Prince of Wales’ Sustainable Markets Initiative, the Resilient Water Accelerator brings together the private sector with governments, as well as experts in the sector, to ensure that more finance is fast tracked towards providing and protecting communities’ vital water services.

This is exactly the kind of work that needs to be done. We must ensure we continue to collaborate to tackle the most pressing challenges that are to come. And replicate and scale these best examples to ensure we do create an ever-growing pipeline of blue-investments.