Water crisis critical as UN calls for collaboration to deliver workable solutions

A hard hitting report from UNESCO has warned the world is facing an escalating water crisis with over 3.5 billion people around the world unable to access safe sanitation with over a quarter of the world’s population with no access to safe drinking water.

The report, which was published by UNESCO on behalf of UN-Water to mark global water day, found globally, 2 billion people (26% of the population) do not have safe drinking water and 3.6 billion (46%) lack access to safely managed sanitation.

Audrey Azoulay UNESCO director-general  said the situation was becoming critical.

“There is an urgent need to establish strong international mechanisms to prevent the global water crisis from spiralling out of control,” she said. “Water is our common future and it is essential to act together to share it equitably and manage it sustainably.”

UNESCO said the research found between two and three billion people experience water shortages for at least one month per year, posing severe risks to livelihoods, notably through food security and access to electricity. The global urban population facing water scarcity is projected to double from 930 million in 2016 to 1.7–2.4 billion people in 2050. The growing incidence of extreme and prolonged droughts is also stressing ecosystems, with dire consequences for both plant and animal species.

Richard Connor, the report’s editor-in-chief, told reporters at a press conference at UN Headquarters ahead of the launch that “uncertainties are increasing”.

“If we don’t address it, there definitely will be a global crisis,” he said, pointing to rising scarcity that reflects reduced availability and increased demand, from urban and industrial growth to agriculture, which alone consumes 70 per cent of the world’s supply.

Building partnerships and cooperation are key to realizing human rights to water and overcoming existing challenges, he added.

Explaining the landscape of such shortages, he said economic water scarcity is a big problem, where governments fail to provide safe access, such as in the middle of Africa, where water flows. Meanwhile, physical scarcity is worst in desert areas, including northern India and through the Middle East.

Answering reporters’ questions about possible “water wars” in the face of a global crisis, Connor said the essential natural resource “tends to lead to peace and cooperation rather than to conflict”.

Johannes Cullmann, special scientific advisor to the president of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said: “It’s a question of investing wisely”.

While water resources and how they are managed impact almost all aspects of sustainable development, including the 17 SDGs, he said current investments must be quadrupled to meet the annual estimated $600 billion to $1 trillion required to realize SDG 6, on water and sanitation.

“Cooperation is the heart of sustainable development, and water is an immensely powerful connector,” he said. “We should not negotiate water; we should deliberate on it.”

Water, after all, is a human right, he said.

The UN said it was calling for increased cooperation over how water is used and managed.

“This is the only way to prevent a global water crisis in the coming decades,” It added. “Environmental services, such as pollution control and biodiversity, are among the shared benefits most often highlighted in the report, along with data/information-sharing and co-financing opportunities.

“For example, ‘water funds’ are financing schemes that bring together downstream users, like cities, businesses, and utilities, to collectively invest in upstream habitat protection and agricultural land management to improve overall water quality and/or quantity.”

“There is much to do and time is not on our side. This report shows our ambition and we must now come together and accelerate action. This is our moment to make a difference,” Gilbert F. Houngbo, chair of UN-Water and director-general of the International Labour Organization.