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Liquid asset: why we won't solve the climate crisis without fixing water

Now is the time to acknowledge the relationship between climate and water.

Now is the time to acknowledge the relationship between climate and water. Image: Jonatan Pie/Unsplash

Gim Huay Neo
Managing Director, World Economic Forum
Morgan Booher
Specialist, Food and Water, World Economic Forum
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Fresh Water

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Understanding the relationship between water and climate is vital to addressing the climate crisis.
  • Water, essential for climate mitigation, is responsible for 10% of global emissions – but also provides huge opportunities for climate adaptation.
  • March's UN Water Conference will seek firm commitments on the sector.

Water is an impact multiplier for sustainability and inextricably linked to climate change and the degradation of ecosystems. Ninety per cent of natural disasters are water-related – whether flood, drought, or super-storm – causing millions in damages annually. With each passing year, there are more record-setting wet and dry seasons, affecting livelihoods, creating supply chain disruptions and leaving communities devastated. Simultaneously, these disasters are also becoming more challenging for communities to recover from in the face of mounting crises including a global economic slowdown, food shortages and energy disruptions. These current crises are symptoms of more systemic issues, ones that we must address alongside short-term issues to achieve the sustainable development goals.

The first UN Water Conference in 46 years, due to take place in March this year, will be an important moment for us to underscore the importance of water as a regenerative force and bloodstream of our earth system. The conference highlights the urgency of the problems we are facing and calls for bold commitments on the sustainable management of water as a critical resource. The availability of clean water supports lives, creates jobs and drives inclusive economic growth and ensures sustainable development.

The true value of water

All too often, water has been undervalued as a resource, and its benefits for ecosystems services and human development grossly underestimated. When the true value of water in our society is not acknowledged, it is difficult to grasp the depth of the problem.

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Water is central to so many industries, from insurance, to fashion, to food and beverage. Addressing water-related inefficiencies will not only reduce risks for private companies, but also benefit water security for surrounding communities. For example, large hotel chains use between 380 and 1,500 litres of freshwater per occupied room per day. When they are located in water-scarce areas, they may divert water required by the surrounding localities, impacting livelihoods and lives.

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The fashion industry, is one of the largest consumers of water after agriculture, representing 4% of global freshwater extraction. Water is required for each step of the process, from growing cotton for jeans and T-shirts, to dyeing fabrics, and treating the final product.

Water is most frequently undervalued in areas that appear to have it in abundance. But as climate change continues to cause fluctuations in weather patterns, understanding the water footprint of all industries is necessary to give proper weight to the value of potable water available for us. With proper value comes better pricing and governance, showing the importance of placing water at the heart of business strategy to catalyze climate positive change across supply chains.

Resilience through water

We will never reach net zero targets without addressing water-related emissions. From cooling data servers to processing wastewater, water is responsible for 10% of global emissions and essential to climate mitigation. Water is also critical for the extraction and refining of fossil fuels, which is often done in water-scarce areas. Decarbonizing our energy systems and shifting to renewable alternatives will reduce the water footprint of energy consumption, conserving water for other purposes.

Water’s biggest opportunity lies in climate adaptation, increasing the resilience of both our ecosystems and our communities. Increasing the resilience of water systems to provide for communities and strengthening infrastructure in the event of water-related disasters can create a positive feedback loop to ensure long-term development and growth. For example, by adapting agricultural land management to use regenerative practices, soils retain more water and require less input from irrigation. This optimizes the amount of freshwater used for agriculture, protects groundwater stores from chemical runoff related to agricultural inputs like fertilizer and pesticides, reduces agriculture-related emissions, and protects soil health for future harvests.

In terms of infrastructure, when examining communities vulnerable to water-related disasters like hurricanes or flooding, the resilience of the city comes from a robust water management system. If we update wastewater and storm management systems to better handle sudden surges in water levels, cities will see a reduced number of combined sewer overflow (CSO) events that pollute waterways and fewer disruptions to economic growth and development. Cities can also update their water use pathways to be more circular, reducing their water footprint overall and limiting the amount of untreated wastewater returned to water bodies.

In short, adaptation of water systems (both natural and manmade) is critical to make our world more resilient to a changing climate.

A systems approach

We increasingly operate in siloes, but these examples prove the intersection between our agriculture and food systems, energy, nature and water. A systems approach is the only way to address these issues simultaneously and ensure that future human intervention in natural ecosystems and climate patterns is positive for people and planet. During the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Annual Meeting, a panel of public and private sector leaders are meeting to discuss exactly what this systems approach must look like in the session “Water: The Bloodstream of our Earth System.”

The information we need is already at our fingertips; it is just a matter of how we measure and use the data to track progress. We know what needs to be done to restore our ecosystems and achieve net zero. We know how each of these sectors connect to each other. Using this information to develop a multidisciplinary approach to thinking about these issues is critical. Setting science-based targets and making data widely available will only strengthen these solutions.

And finally, thinking innovatively about business and financing models in combination with new technology is the best path forward. Innovative technologies are developing at a rapid pace, but struggle to scale past the initial pilot phase. By adapting business, financing and governance models to support these innovations, we can create the necessary enabling ecosystem for these solutions to thrive, making our water systems more efficient and resilient. At the Annual Meeting, the Global Water Initiative will convene a Meeting of the Champions for Water Innovation, to provide thought leadership on these key enablers, and put forward actionable commitments for March 2023 and beyond.

To develop this innovation ecosystem and help water-focused entrepreneurs, or aquapreneurs, scale their technologies, the Forum has partnered with HCLTech on the Aquapreneur Innovation Initiative to run a series of five challenges through UpLink, the Forum’s open innovation platform, to provide the network and financing necessary for Aquapreneurs to thrive and continue to benefit our water systems. The first challenge, the Global Freshwater Challenge, closed in November with the first cohort of Top Innovators to be announced at the 2023 Annual Meeting in Davos. These innovators are bringing new, data-savvy methods for monitoring water use, restoring water quality, and increasing the resilience of our communities and ecosystems.

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

The time to act on water is now. We cannot afford another 46-year delay on water action. By making bold, measurable commitments, we can ensure a water-abundant future for all communities around the world. The UN Water Conference presents a unique opportunity to tie water and climate together. What will you bring to March 2023?

Learn more about the Forum’s work to address the global water crisis here.

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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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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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