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Why water security is our most urgent challenge today

Water security goes far beyond whether we have too much or too little of the physical resource.

Water security goes far beyond whether we have too much or too little of the physical resource. Image: Nana Kofi Acquah (Creative Commons)

Gim Huay Neo
Managing Director, World Economic Forum
Saroj Kumar Jha
Global Director, Water Global Practice, The World Bank
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  • Water is central to our survival, economic growth and development.
  • Yet we face a global water crisis that is outpacing efforts to address it.
  • The 2030 Water Resources Group was set up to help tackle this crisis.

With just seven years left to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, the world remains far behind, particularly on its water goals. We need to take swift and significant strides towards a water-secure world. But what does that mean in practice?

Water security goes far beyond whether we have too much or too little of the physical resource. It goes to the heart of every aspect of our development and well-being as people on a liveable planet. We need enough water, of the right quality, to keep us healthy, sustain our livelihoods, grow our economies, and protect our ecosystems. Water security covers all aspects of the issue, from water-related disasters and water-borne diseases, to conflict over shared resources and governance challenges, to biodiversity and groundwater quality.

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Despite global commitments, our progress on water security for all is far too slow. By 2030, global freshwater demand is expected to outstrip supply by 40%, and an estimated 1.6 billion people will lack safely managed drinking water.

At present, 4 billion people live in water-scarce areas and one in four cities face water insecurity. Growing populations mean more water is needed to produce food and energy, and to run cities. And water pollution threatens existing resources: an estimated 80% of wastewater is discharged without treatment from industry and municipalities, potentially contaminating water, and other natural resources.

Water is closely linked to many challenges, but perhaps none so pressing as climate change. The climate crisis is severely disrupting the water cycle on which people and the planet depend. Water is at the centre of this crisis: nine out of 10 climate events are water related. Droughts and floods continue to grow in intensity, groundwater is drying up, cities and farms are facing water shortages, and glaciers are melting at an accelerated pace.

In the countdown to COP28 in November this year, when the global community will take stock of progress on the Paris Agreement, it is crucial that water be a central consideration in all climate action.


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

What are the constraints on water security?

We need urgent global action — coordinated across all sectors and institutions — to ensure a water-secure world for all. Improving climate resilience and ensuring water use is sustainable will help optimize our use of this increasingly scarce and variable resource. Increasing inclusion is important to support development and ensure that the benefits of water are shared. These changes require partnerships, policies, and financing. In practical terms, we need much larger investment and financing for water-related infrastructure and the institutions — including river basin agencies, utilities, and municipalities — that can help build and maintain it.

Meeting the global financing needs for water is a particularly big challenge. Water infrastructure is estimated to require a staggering $6.7 trillion by 2030 — and $22.6 trillion by 2050. Yet the global water sector currently attracts less than 2% of public spending, with a similar level of private investment in low- and middle-income countries. More financing is needed, alongside more innovative approaches to maximize the impact of funds.

The power of partnerships

Global leaders, including international institutions such as the World Bank and the World Economic Forum, alongside governments and civil society, are putting a shared vision for water security into action.

The World Bank hosts a multi-donor trust fund, the 2030 Water Resources Group (2030 WRG), which is using the power of partnerships to bring change to the water sector. This can be seen in action in Bangladesh, where communities are facing a severe pollution crisis. Many rivers are biologically dead, and 28% of deaths are caused by pollution. The country’s funding gap for water pollution management, expected to reach $6.6 billion by 2040, is too big to be met by public funding alone. This is where collaboration becomes crucial. 2030 WRG is bringing public and private stakeholders together to fast-track investments, including $450 million in public finance and $100 million in private capital, to help address the urgent water pollution challenge in Bangladesh.

Over the past decade, 2030 WRG has helped advance water security through multi-stakeholder partnerships in several countries. Earlier this year, the trust fund launched a new strategic plan to catalyse collaboration and financing for the development of water security and climate action plans. The updated strategy will see 2030 WRG working even more closely with the World Bank and the World Economic Forum to bring financing, innovation, and climate responsiveness to the water sector. Through collective action, we can take meaningful steps towards a water-secure world.

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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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