Sustainable Development

The future of water should not start with water

water coming out of a tap at a drinking fountain

World Water Day 2021: Antimicrobial resistance from water pollution is a healthcare challenge that needs solutions. Image: Photo by Nicolas COMTE on Unsplash

Alex Mung
Global Director, Water Sustainability, Anheuser-Busch InBev NV
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Explore and monitor how SDG 06: Clean Water and Sanitation is affecting economies, industries and global issues
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SDG 06: Clean Water and Sanitation

  • This week started with World Water Day, which showed us how the debate should not be about prioritizing water, but rather about connecting it to other priorities.
  • More and more active substances are finding their way into our aquatic environments without adequate wastewater treatment - leading to problems such as antimicrobial resistance (AMR).
  • Closing the gap for populations without access to water and upgrading wastewater treatment capacity will safeguard our health and the economic cost from future pandemics.

Water as an enabler, not a competitor

Driven by escalating competing demands, deteriorating quality (due to pollution), chronic under-investment, and exacerbated by the impacts of climate change, the world’s water resources constitute a system already pushed to the edge. COVID-19 only magnified its vulnerability, inequity, and insufficiency.

As the world strives to bounce back from the social and economic toll of the pandemic, both the public and private sector will be forced to make tough decisions in prioritizing and allocating resources across competing economic, social, and environmental commitments.

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Where in the growing line-up of priorities does water now stand? Before or after revitalizing jobs, protecting the health of our citizens, promoting social justice, enhancing nature-positive economies, and achieving the Paris Climate Agreement in the “Race to Zero”?

The key is not before or after, but “water stands together”. The question is not whether water is more or less important, but how can water be coupled together with other pressing issues to achieve multiple wins?

Image: Statista

Protecting against future pandemics

COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic we face. The importance of water and hand hygiene are now well understood. Our ability to treat viruses however is also being compromised. Antimicrobial-resistance (AMR) – the human rejection of antibiotics – is a fast-growing threat, that diminishes the effectiveness of our healthcare system.

Our growing use, direct and indirect consumption, and exposure to antibiotics is causing a rise in AMR. Across the main sources of discharge – hospital and community wastes, agricultural runoff, and by-products from pharmaceutical manufacturing – more and more active substances are finding their way into our aquatic environments without adequate wastewater treatment.

Where access to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities is limited, these waterbodies often serve as sources of drinking water or sanitation, leading to a perpetuating cycle. A forthcoming study commissioned by the Forum, indicates under a ‘business as usual’ scenario and using conservative assumptions, AMR from water pollution could cause ~500,000 deaths per year, and in the range of $1-5 billion each year in healthcare expenditures.

These costs will be concentrated in the Global South, and for some countries, will be unaffordable.

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

While an array of responses are needed, it is clear closing the gap for populations without access to water and hand hygiene facilities, and upgrading wastewater treatment capacity will be important measures and investments to make in safeguarding our health and economic cost from future pandemics.

This is but one example, and there are many others that need to be surfaced across topics like social justice, food, nature, and climate change. At the Forum, we believe water can be an important connector, enabler, and unifier. We’re calling it making “Water Possible”.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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