We can’t live without water, but it’s a finite resource whose supply we’ve been taking for granted – and times have changed.
Since the late 1970s, when the last Water Conference took place, the world has been focused on the business of rapid growth and development. Water was available, and its quality and supply was predictable, allowing us to raise families, build cities and factories, prevent the spread of disease, boost farm yields and bring more land under cultivation.
But a growing global population predicted by the UN to reach 8.5 billion by 2030 coupled with economic development and changing consumption patterns means the demands on our water resources are far greater than 50 years ago.
Natural resources crises, including for water and food, come within the top 10 biggest risks facing humanity in the coming decade, in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023. It cites one UN estimate that places the gap between water demand and supply at 40% by 2030, with a “dramatic and unequal increase in demand between countries”.
As we continue to over-deplete, mismanage and abuse this vital resource, water is becoming more scarce, more polluted and contested at an unprecedented rate and scale. And as global warming continues to take effect, ordinary weather is becoming a thing of the past, exacerbating our water crisis, with some regions more affected than others. Wind and rainfall conditions have become more extreme and harder to predict. This is affecting water availability and supply.
The World Meteorological Organization estimates that 3.6 billion people struggle to get enough water to meet their needs for at least one month every year, and it forecasts that 5 billion people – more than half of humanity – will be facing the same plight by 2050.
But this is not just about getting enough to drink, wash with or to water crops. Extreme weather events sometimes bring too much water all at once. Floods, hurricanes and other water-related events take lives and destroy homes, livelihoods and infrastructure. UN-Water, which coordinates efforts by UN agencies on this issue, says that almost three-quarters of all natural disasters were water-related between 2001 and 2018.
It’s clear that we need to rethink our approach to how we can best allocate and value water, and that’s what this Conference will be about. How can we share the cost of preventing or mitigating droughts and floods exacerbated by global warming?
We need some clear thinking about how to improve the governance of water supplies to ensure everyone has access to water to drink and wash – how can we ensure our regulation of distribution is effective, fair, just and has democratic oversight? How can we share the cost of preventing disasters?
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This Conference will provide a roadmap for countries, sectors and river basins. It will seek better outcomes for all, on all water-related challenges, in order to accelerate the delivery of the UN SDGs.