This means confronting several challenges. To begin with, there are over 7 billion people on earth, of which a billion routinely drink unsafe water and do not have basic sanitary facilities, leading to illness, disability and death. Access to clean water and sanitation is a human right, which we must do more to honour.
Moreover, the world’s population will reach some 9 billion by 2050, which means more demand and more competition for scarce resources. Farming already uses 70% of the world’s fresh water and cannot expand more. Water is also needed for industry and energy output, not to mention drinking water and sanitation.
The third key challenge is pollution of fresh water and oceans. This threatens our health and our environment, generates costs for treatment, and hampers development.
Climate change compounds these challenges, with droughts and floods, shifting precipitation, and ocean acidification. Rapidly expanding megacities already feel the strain, such as São Paulo, where recent water shortages pose a serious threat.
We must turn this situation around. What must be done to address the challenges and grasp the opportunities that can benefit us all?
Clearly the first goal must be to secure everyone’s access to clean water. International development goals have hitherto focused on “improved” water; we can do better and “go clean” by ensuring safe and affordable water for everyone. Universal access to clean water and basic sanitation by 2050 would mean over 80,000 fewer deaths per year from basic illnesses such as diarrhoea. It would also generate major benefits for fisheries, tourism and livelihoods, particularly in the poorest countries.
Second, we must also improve efficiency and management, reduce waste, and maximise opportunities in all related sectors. Whether for advanced cities or remote countryside, addressing water scarcity or flooding, we must mobilise the rich range of economic and governance tools at our disposal to make this happen.
Third, we must do more to tackle pollution, particularly effluent from cleaning products and medicines, and nitrogen and phosphorous discharges, so that we can safeguard soils, rivers and coasts, indeed our whole ecosystem.
How can these goals be achieved? First, we need to invest in infrastructure, technology and skills. New dams may be needed, and others removed. Infrastructure to help adapt to floods must be built. There are costly leakages to fix. There is a need to invest in smart irrigation, storm-water and rain capture, and effluent treatment.
We also need financing. Many investments are low cost, such as preserving wetlands to store or filter water. Others require substantial capital. All require know-how and long-term management. The public sector, which is the main provider of water in most countries, will need to tap new sources of financing beyond taxes, transfers and tariffs, including pension and wealth funds, green bonds, and private philanthropy. Governments should also involve small private firms in water provision, as they bring both finance and innovation to the table.
We need a mix of tough regulatory and market rules to stop toxic pollution, instil more responsible consumption and generate revenue. Harmful subsidies that promote overconsumption of water must be addressed.
Governance is critical. Some water issues are local, others global. Everyone uses water, and no one community should be left alone with the problem. Water-wise policies must be adopted by interests beyond the water sector itself–energy, farmers, real estate, industry–to name but a few.
Finally, though our action must start now, we must aim for the long term. Patience is of the essence: Rome was not built in a day, and indeed it took several centuries to complete Ancient Rome’s 11 great aqueducts. Foresight, flexibility, stakeholder engagement, co-operation and leadership are all needed for the future of our water world. We need to acknowledge that the benefits may not be evident right away, but the actions we take on water security today will allow us to leave a better planet for future generations.
In September 2015, world leaders will adopt new Sustainable Development Goals to succeed the Millennium Development Goals from 2015 onwards. And in December, we must forge a new agreement to address climate change at the COP21 meetings taking place in Paris. Water security is a key element of these processes.
The OECD has much to contribute in terms of analysis, advice and exchanging ideas. We have built up a rich pool of knowledge on water-related issues from around the world, which I encourage policymakers to draw on.
We have no excuse. Together, we must turn water into a flow of new opportunities for green, inclusive, sustainable growth.
©OECD Observer No 302 April 2015