Water shortages must be put on the climate change agenda. That’s Why – The European Sting – Critical News & Insights on European Politics, Economy, Foreign Affairs, Business & Technology

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This article is brought to you through The European Sting’s collaboration with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Jay Famiglietti, Executive Director, Global Institute for Water Security, José Iganacio Gallindo, Co-Founder and CEO, Waterplan


  • Water is becoming scarcer as regional sources are depleted or disappear.
  • Increasing droughts and floods around the world are making water resources more difficult to manage.
  • Industry is largely responsible for water scarcity problems and must now act to better manage our groundwater.

Most people don’t realize it, but the availability of fresh water is changing dramatically around the world. Wet areas of the planet, such as the tropics, are getting wetter, while already dry regions of the world, the mid-latitudes, are getting drier.

Some of the fastest changes are occurring in the high northern latitudes. In northern Canada and Russia, for example, warming up to four times the global average rate is melting glaciers, permafrost and snowpack. Consequently, the regional hydrology is drastically altered, while critical local water sources are eliminated.

This broad global pattern is accentuated by regional hotspots of too much or too little water, driven by changing extremes of floods and droughts and widespread depletion of underground aquifers.

Groundwater Withdrawals Exceed Replenishment Rates

More than half of the world’s major aquifers are rapidly draining because groundwater withdrawal rates far exceed recharge rates. When the cumulative impacts of regional freshwater gains and losses are comprehensively assessed around the world, three startling facts emerge:

First, the continents, with the exception of Greenland and Antarctica, are drying up. Water for all uses – for people, the environment, food and energy production, industry and economic growth – is becoming increasingly scarce, as regional sources disappear or run out.

Second, rainfall is becoming much more variable, with prolonged dry spells punctuated by more intense storms, making water resources more difficult to manage.

Third, we – humans – are solely responsible for all of these changes, as drivers of climate change and mismanagers of groundwater.

Water is the messenger of climate change

As rising concentrations of carbon dioxide continue to fuel global warming, water is the stealthy messenger bringing bad news about climate change to your city, your neighborhood, and your front door.

As the sole drivers of climate change, it is up to us to adapt and, where possible, repair our broken water cycle. Unlike carbon, however, society’s response to the water-related aspects of the climate emergency has been disappointing. It has simply not reached the pace and scale required by the urgency of the climate and water crisis.

Discover

What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?

Water security – both a sustainable supply and clean quality – is essential to ensuring healthy communities. Yet our world’s water resources are compromised.

Today, 80% of our wastewater returns to the environment untreated, while 780 million people still do not have access to an improved water source. By 2030, we could face a 40% global gap between water supply and demand.

The World Economic Forum’s Water Possible platform supports innovative ideas to address the global water challenge.

The Forum supports innovative multi-stakeholder partnerships, including the 2030 Water Resources Group, which is helping close the gap between global water demand and supply by 2030 and has since helped facilitate $1 billion in investments in water.

Other emerging partnerships include the 50L Home Coalition, which aims to solve the urban water crisis, tackling both water security and climate change; and the Mobilizing Hand Hygiene for All initiative, created in response to the gap of 40% of the global population not having access to handwashing services during COVID-19.

Would you like to join our mission to meet the global water challenge? Learn more in our impact story.

Putting water shortages on the climate change agenda

This situation must change immediately. Water must be the next priority on the global climate change agenda. But, because industry and its supply chains, and in particular the food industry, account for 80% of the world’s water withdrawals, we cannot advance global water security without a commitment deep in the industry.

We call on industry to join forces with the public sector, non-profit organizations and academia to provide the global leadership that is essential to adapt to climate-water risk and to advance adaptation to our cycle fast moving water.

The recent Global assessment of the impacts of the private sector on water report by the Global Institute for Water Security (GIWS) at the University of Saskatchewan and the non-profit organization Ceres, provides several urgent recommendations for the industry.

Fill up any waste water

This report recommends that companies strive to return the same quantity of water, of the same or higher quality, to the environment as that which was withdrawn. They should ensure that natural ecosystems are not degraded by commercial activities; restore the ecosystems on which their businesses depend; engage deeply in water management activities in the basins in which they operate; help make water more accessible; advocate for watershed protection; support new water conservation and groundwater sustainability policies; promote multi-stakeholder collaborations, because water is a shared resource, with several competing but vital uses; and ensure that water-related risks are considered, systematically integrated into corporate governance and decision-making, and transparently reported.

Importantly, the report highlights the two-way nature of water risk and water materiality: industry is increasingly at risk from accelerating changes in flooding, drought and water availability; but it also has a long history and dubious distinction as a major polluter of our precious surface and ground waters, as shown in the table below.

Both aspects of this dual materiality need to be properly assessed, as the industry will come under increasing pressure from investors and entities such as the CDP, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, the Climate-Related Financial Disclosures and the new Task Force on Nature-Related Climate Disclosures, to meticulously account and disclose its relationship to water, just as it has been to carbon.

The private sector is demonstrating its commitment to carbon accounting and management, but that’s only half the battle. The time has come for industry leadership on climate-water risk.

Teresa H. Sadler