Protecting our water

OECD Observer

The celebrated marine scientist Jacques Cousteau once said that “All life is part of a complex relationship in which each is dependent upon the others, taking from, giving to and living with all the rest.” This is especially true of water. Freshwater management, oceans and marine ecosystems are intimately linked to almost every other environmental and humanitarian issue.

Take a developing coastal city: the kind of dynamic and bustling urban centre where much of the world’s population will live in the future. In such a city, much of the population makes a living from fishing or from work at the city’s port, a trade hub where the circulation of ships disturbs underwater ecosystems. Tourists swarm the best beaches, and water must be efficiently managed to serve both tourists and, more crucially, the city’s own resident population. Efficient water management links together a series of sectors like construction, energy and sanitation, on which daily life depends. It also bears strong implications for social justice and stable governance of the city itself.

In short, water-related policy issues are everywhere, and the problems currently plaguing water systems and marine environments will have serious consequences for areas ranging from trade to agriculture to inclusive growth. If water, ocean and ecosystem management are crippled, then human development is hampered too.

The scale of our reliance on the marine environment is immense. It supports 61% of the world’s gross national product (GNP) and about 500 million livelihoods which depend on ocean-related activities. Beyond ocean shores, effective water management on land is vital for ensuring that societies are stable, fair and resilient. Yet as many as 2.1 billion people worldwide still lack access to clean and safe drinking water at home.

The pressures on the water systems and marine environments we depend upon continue to mount. Oil and gas activity, deep-sea mining and pollution from plastics have wrought havoc on marine environments, damaging over 60% of the world’s major ecosystems. Water infrastructure is strained by skyrocketing populations and often unsustainable or environmentally-unfriendly construction. With climate change adding fuel to the fire, what kinds of policies can address these interrelated challenges and guide us towards a more sustainable equilibrium with the marine environment?

The first step for oceans would be to preserve once-flourishing ecosystems. Marine protected areas are one tool to combat further ecosystem decay and encourage regeneration. Biodiversity should be mainstreamed into other policy areas and the legal frameworks around it strengthened. And strong policies to limit pollution should be implemented and enforced, along with policies aimed at limiting consumption of non-recyclable plastics more generally.

Beyond reducing pollution, significant investment should be directed towards building and improving infrastructure for freshwater supply and sanitation, with an eye to nature-based solutions. New technologies can be harnessed to build this sustainable, greener infrastructure and improve water treatment processes.

While working to achieve these advancements, policymakers must also stay mindful of their consequences for daily life the world over. Good water management is a key building block of resilient and stable societies with lower levels of conflict. It also strongly influences social justice due to its interlinkages with poverty and gender equality. For example, African and Asian women travel an average of 6 kilometres daily—time that could’ve been spent at school, work or elsewhere.

Effective governance for all of these intersecting issues requires co-ordination between stakeholders across the public, private and non-profit sectors. As noted at World Water Week 2018, policymakers can push for corporate actors to set common standards. Action at all levels is especially necessary because water and ecosystems do not respect administrative and political boundaries. To address water-related problems with the urgency, care and co-ordination they require and deserve, stakeholders must work together towards shared solutions.

Given the enormity of their reach, water and ecosystem issues are more than just a drop in the policymaking ocean. As Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Amina J. Mohammed noted at World Water Week, the sixth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), centred on water, is in fact “the docking station” of all other SDGs—the bedrock of human development.


United Nations, Sustainable Development Goal 6,

United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (2012), Rio Ocean Declaration,

OECD (2018), Implementing the OECD Principles on Water Governance, OECD Publishing,

OECD (2018), Mainstreaming Biodiversity for Sustainable Development, OECD Publishing,

OECD (2017), Marine Protected Areas: Economics, Management and Effective Policy Mixes, OECD Publishing,

We Are Water Foundation (2018), “Water and sanitation for gender equality”,

World Health Organization (2017), News release, 12 July,

World Water Week:

©OECD Observer Q3 2018

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