Very low water levels

Very low water levels are seen in the Mequinenza reservoir on November 5, 2022 in Caspe, Spain.

(Photo by Zowy Voeten/Getty Images)

Report Calls for Water to Be Treated as 'Global Common Good' as Supply Crisis Looms

Water overuse and a failure to recognize that countries are interdependent when it comes to the global water cycle has placed the world on a path to a potential 40% freshwater supply shortfall by the end of the decade.

Ahead of the first United Nations conference on water in more than four decades, experts from the Global Commission on the Economics of Water released a landmark report Friday to warn the international community that the world is "heading for massive collective failure" in the management of the planet's water supply and demand that governments treat water as a "global common good."

Policymakers' failure to ensure equal access to water, protect freshwater ecosystems, and recognize that communities and countries are interdependent when it comes to the global water cycle has resulted in two billion people lacking a safe drinking supply and "the prospect of a 40% shortfall in freshwater supply by 2030, with severe shortages in water-constrained regions," according to the report.

The 32-page document, titled Turning the Tide: A Call to Collective Action, "marks the first time the global water system has been scrutinized comprehensively and its value to countries—and the risks to their prosperity if water is neglected—laid out in clear terms."

In a video released ahead of the report, co-author Johan Rockström, who directs the Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, noted that the expected freshwater shortage is partially due to the fact that "we're changing the very source of freshwater precipitation" as human activities including fossil fuel extraction drive planetary heating.

"However, water is not just a casualty but also a driver of the climate crisis," reads the report. "Extreme water events cause an immediate loss of carbon uptake in nature. Droughts lead to fires and massive loss of biomass, carbon, and biodiversity. The loss of wetlands is depleting the planet's greatest carbon store, while the drop in soil moisture is reducing the terrestrial and forest ecosystem's ability to sequester carbon."

"We will fail on climate change if we fail on water," the report continues.

Humans' misuse of water, pollution of water, and changes to the hydrological cycle amount to "a triple crisis," Rockström toldThe Guardian, which must be solved by recognizing water as a "global commons."

According to the report, the majority of countries depend on the evaporation of water from neighboring countries for about half of their water supply. This "green" water is held in soils and transpired from forests and other ecosystems.

Countries "are not only interconnected by transboundary blue water flows but also through green water, i.e., atmospheric green water flows of water vapor, flows which... extend far beyond traditional watershed boundaries," the report states.

The report points to regressive and inefficient use of water subsidies, which "typically favor the well-off and corporations more than the poor," and $500 billion annually in agriculture subsidies, the majority of which "have been assessed to be price-distorting" and which can fuel excessive water consumption.

"Our economic systems by and large fail to account for the value of water," reads the report. "This leads to the excessive and unsustainable use of finite freshwater resources and a corresponding lack of access for the poor and vulnerable in many places. We must systematically incorporate the values of water into decision-making, so it can be used far more efficiently in every sector, more equitably in every population and more sustainably, both locally and globally."

The authors recommended seven steps that policymakers must take to avoid a water shortage by the end of the decade, including:

  • Manage water supplies as a common good by recognizing that water is critical to food security and all sustainable development goals;
  • Mobilize multiple stakeholders—public, private, civil society, and local community—to scale up investments in water through new
    modalities of public-private partnerships;
  • Cease underpricing water and target support for the poor;
  • Phase out water and agriculture subsidies that "generate excessive water consumption and other environmentally damaging practices";
  • Establish Just Water Partnerships to enable investments in water access, resilience and sustainability in low- and middle-income countries;
  • Move forward on steps that can be taken this decade to "move the needle significantly," including fortifying depleted freshwater systems, recycling industrial and urban wastewater, reusing water in the production of critical materials, and shifting agricultural systems to include less water-intensive crops and drought-resistant farming; and
  • Reshape multilateral governance of water by incorporating new water standards into trade agreements and prioritizing equality in water decision-making.
The collective call to action, said the authors, "will enable us to convert water from a growing global tragedy to immense global opportunity: to bring a new direction to policies and collaboration, innovation and investment, and finance, so that we conserve and use water more efficiently, and ensure that everyone has access to the water they need."

The Global Commission on the Economics of Water will present its findings at the U.N. Water Conference on March 22.

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