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Kate Zerrenner headshot

Water Crises Are a Top Global Risk, But We Have the Power to Prevent Them

Water crises again topped the World Economic Forum's Global Risk Report, released ahead of its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. But this is one global challenge we already have the tools to address.
By Kate Zerrenner
how to prevent water crises

The World Economic Forum releases the Global Risk Report each year in advance of its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Water crises ranked among the most serious risks facing society in each of these reports since 2012, with the exception of one. 2020 is no different, with water crises named among the top 10 global risks with respect to both impact and likelihood to occur. More than 85 percent of respondents to WEF surveys expect water crises to increase globally in 2020, along with extreme heat waves, destruction of ecosystems, and health impacted by pollution. 

Is water stress a societal or environmental risk to the economy?

For the first time, environmental issues fill out every spot in the top five most likely global risks. Interestingly, the WEF lists water crises as a societal rather than environmental risk. But in that category, water outstrips every other societal risk in terms of impact, including food crises, infectious diseases, involuntary migration, and social instability. The classification raises an important question: Where does water fit in the economic landscape? 

Clearly, water is a part of the natural environment. When looking at the other environmental risks the WEF observes, such as climate action failure, extreme weather, natural and human-made environmental disasters, and biodiversity loss, water crises run through every one of those categories. Our societies, economies and ways of life are deeply dependent on water. 

“Water is a key ingredient to human health and livelihoods,” said Bridgette McAdoo, vice president of freshwater and food corporate strategy and engagement for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “Energy, food, transportation and nature all depend on a very limited reserve of clean, flowing water. Climate change, unsustainable agriculture practices, poorly planned infrastructure and pollution all threaten the vitality of this critical resource.” 

So, is it a societal or environmental risk? The answer is: both. Failure to take action on climate change is a failure to protect and preserve water supplies, and extreme weather causes water crises across the board, whether it’s too much water or not enough. The WEF includes things like migration, trade, investment and the exacerbation of geopolitical tensions as societal challenges. And water affects or is affected by every one of those. We are already seeing migrations spurred by water crises, and trade and investment will lessen in places that do not have adequate water supplies. Overall, the World Bank estimates that failing to deploy better water management policies could result in regional GDP losses of up to 10 percent by 2050.

To reduce risk, look at the whole landscape

If decision-makers look at water through one lens, they run the risk of missing opportunities within the nexus where different sectors interact, such as energy and water

For example, renewable energy targets are critical for reducing carbon emissions. But by focusing on power generation alone, most policymakers fail to see the potential to reduce emissions and conserve water in tandem by addressing issues such as poor infrastructure in the water sector, which can lead to high leakage rates. Those high leakage rates mean energy is wasted in treating and moving water that never reaches its intended consumer. 

A more holistic approach to climate change is mindful of these interconnected systems and where they interact, engaging both the energy and water sectors to address common goals. In another example of synergy, the vast water storage areas at water treatment facilities are often ideal locations for solar installations that can power systems directly, as was done by Thames Water in the U.K.

“We must look for cross-cutting opportunities across sectors and national boundaries to better manage freshwater supplies,” McAdoo told us. “Governments, companies and communities must collectively manage water to secure water for our future.”

prevent water crises with collaboration between water and energy sectors

(Image: The private utility company Thames Water powered up Europe's largest floating solar installation at Queen Elizabeth II reservoir near London Heathrow airport in 2016, saving the company more than $25 million each year and powering systems with clean energy.) 

Agriculture is another industry which has a high level of intersectionality with water. “Water is a key resource for the agricultural sector, and it is a main factor in food security, as well as the livelihoods of agricultural workers around the world,” says Colin Strong, a corporate water stewardship analyst at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that has a team focused on mapping, measuring, and mitigating global water challenges. Food crises also rank high on the WEF’s risks list, and intersectional challenges exist in both the quality and quantity of water needed to ensure food security, all of which is further exacerbated by climate change. 

The Global Risk Report also separates climate action failure from extreme weather, natural disasters, biodiversity loss, and human-made environmental disasters. Some measures to reduce risk in these areas need to be targeted to the specific issue, the WEF asserts. Extreme weather and natural disasters, while linked, may require different solutions. However, they cannot be entirely divorced from each other. 

Similarly, water crises can seem like an overwhelming problem to solve, but it is an important enough issue that we should try, and we are. The solutions are political more than technological or monetary: Many countries could resolve the lion’s share of their water issues for under 2 percent of their GDP, Strong says. “There is no shortage of success stories on the local level—for example, ‘green’ infrastructure in a water supply—but success or failure will result from our ability to turn patchwork successes into common practice everywhere,” he told us. 

Much like climate change, water flows through all of the environmental risks we face, and many of the societal ones. As we see the integrated effects of climate change and water crises, it is time to also look at the risk factors and the solutions in a more holistic manner. A drought requires a different solution than a water quality crisis, but they are connected. And efficiencies in the solutions, both technological and political, can be found with a view toward a broader landscape. Perhaps for its 2021 report, the WEF will include a new category on the bigger water picture and the risks—and opportunities—within the water sector.

This article series is sponsored by DuPont Water Solutions and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team. 

Image credits: Wynand Uys/Unsplash, Thomas Somme/Unsplash, Jessica Furtney/Unsplash and Thames Water

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner