Water is a major issue, and its usage should have been a priority for years, however, it only recently seems to have made it to the forefront of the sustainability agenda.
I recently attended World Water Week, held in Stockholm. It served as a vital stepping stone ahead of the UN 2023 Water Conference in March. The conference saw public and private sector experts and organisations come together to discuss the challenges, issues, and solutions of global water resources.
The UN 2023 Conference on Water, to be held in New York, will mark 46 years since the last one. It begs the question of why we are only now working towards an international UN conference on addressing water and water policy again.
As I write this, there are multiple ongoing major water crises across the world. For example, flooding has caused a significant water supply issue in Jackson, Mississippi, floods in Pakistan are impacting half of all water and sanitation facilities, and rising temperatures globally are damaging agriculture and, thus, our supply chains. It is astonishing that as the world continues to report on devastating events related to water’s central role in our lives, it is not more pertinent on the global agenda.
The big question rightfully addressed at this year’s Stockholm World Water Week conference was ‘Seeing the Unseen: The Value of Water’. The intimate connection between water and climate change is highlighted by the increasing frequency of extreme weather events in many parts of the world. The poor state of much of the world’s water resources further highlights the subsequent global challenge of feeding an ever-growing population whilst knowing that at least 70% of global water use is for producing our food. The UN estimates that 1 in 3 people globally do not have access to safe drinking water. It is also estimated that global water demand will exceed supply by 56% by 2030, further exacerbating water scarcity and quality issues around the world. The urgency of tackling the global water crisis has never been more evident.
Breaking down silos
“Water overlaps all sorts of crises, and therefore we need a multidimensional global response to the challenges. This is not a linear problem.” said Professor Mariana Mazzucato in her remarks during the ‘What’s Next’ session at World Water Week, reinforcing that water needs an integrated approach and is a multi-sector and multi-jurisdictional challenge we are all facing,
It was also great to see so many new faces, with Stockholm International Water Institute noting that 60% of attendees were new participants and 40% of this year’s participants were under 35 years old. A welcoming statistic since it is their future we are talking about and opening the conversations to newer generations also opens our thinking to new ideas.
Another theme that played a prominent role is the importance of awareness of the different values of water. It is more than a price you pay for water or seeing the lakes, rivers, and oceans as water bodies. Earlier this year, it became clear that we have exceeded the Planetary Boundary for water, now we take green water into account. This means that those resources of water that aren’t immediately visible, e.g., groundwater, soil moisture, and atmospheric water, are being depleted.
These water sources seem to have been forgotten, even by experts in the water community, but in the face of the global water crisis, they play a crucial role. Sandra Postel, the 2021 Stockholm Water Laureate, outlined how restoring and protecting soil moisture helps to combat drought and increase food production due to groundwater being the main source of fresh water for more than half of the world’s population.
Despite this, during my conversations throughout the week, it was encouraging to see businesses and investors increasingly becoming aware of the risks they are facing if the value of water, broader than its economic value, is not considered during their operational decision-making processes. The annual CDP Water Security Questionnaire demonstrates how companies are pricing water internally. As a result, water management is increasingly becoming a core pillar of business leadership, risk management and strategic planning.
Additionally, the co-benefits when dealing with corporate water stewardship have become much clearer – ranging from climate, ecological (biodiversity) and societal benefits, amongst others. Methods to value these co-benefits are entering the water world, coming from developments in the nature and biodiversity space, one of them being the Natural Capital Protocol.
Working towards a global action agenda on water
As I reflect on the week, my conversations and the much-needed discussion on societal behaviours and innovation around water, I am struck by the growing recognition that we may not achieve the Sustainable Development Goals set out by the United Nations without profound and inclusive transformations.
If this is the ‘Decisive Decade’ on climate action to avert the worst impacts of climate change, then 2023 needs to be a decisive year in setting up the global water action agenda, with the UN Water Conference in March being of crucial importance.