Quentin Grafton takes a look at what it would cost to tackle the world’s water problems, and how The Geneva Actions on Human Water Security can help.
It is now more than 45 years since the Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment, and two years since the UN Secretary General released his score card on global achievements towards the Millennium Development Goals. Yet, every year more than one million people die from diarrhoea as a direct result of poor access to clean water and inadequate sanitation. More than half a million of these are children under the age of five years.
Most of the world’s rivers are polluted and are not suitable for direct human use. In many dry and semi-arid locations, water extractions from aquifers and rivers are growing at an unsustainable rate, jeopardising future food production.
Yet despite this challenge, water planning, management and governance is often ineffective and frequently fails to respond to human needs and environmental demands for water.
This is not just a water problem; it is a people problem, and it is a global problem. Indeed, the World Economic Forum consistently rates water security as one of the top global risks facing humanity. There are already 1.8 billion people living in basins and catchments with high water stress and, on present trends, will likely more than double by the 2050s.
Despite positive water access trends in some countries, there are still 2.4 billion people who lack access to improved sanitation, and some 700 million or more who lack access to safe drinking water. Extra efforts and additional funds are needed more than ever to transform how we use and conserve our precious water resources.
If nice words, laudable principles or good intentions solved water problems then all would be well in the world of water. But as with any real-world challenges, their solutions require meaningful actions and prioritisation. While collectively we may be able to do anything, we cannot do everything. We are obliged to make trade-offs and decisions about where our scarce funds and efforts should be placed. Investments in water security for the present and the future must be one of these global priorities.
Overcoming the problems of basic water needs, deteriorating water quality, inadequate water flows, and poor decision-making is necessary to resolve the most pressing water problems. Recognising the need and the priority to fund water actions, more than 50 water experts and practitioners from 22 different countries, including myself, have become Founding Signatories to the Geneva Actions on Human Water Security. We signed this ‘Magna Carta of Water’ on 7 July 2017 in Geneva, and in doing so have all committed to three global actions.
These actions are: firstly, to secure the delivery of basin water needs for people; secondly, to secure improvements in the condition of watersheds, streams, rivers and aquifers; and finally, to secure better water planning, management and governance.
Inspired by the Green Carbon Fund that was established by 194 governments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries, the Founding Signatories to the Geneva Actions on Human Water Security categorically state that the world needs a Global Human Water Security Fund.
The funds needed for water are large globally, but trivial on an individual basis. For just one cent per person per day, the world could establish a Fund that would invest an additional US$27 billion per year in water actions to secure basic human water needs, improve watersheds and water quality, and deliver better water governance.
This global investment is still less than a third of what is proposed for the Green Carbon Fund. It is also much less than current world water needs and what is required to ‘Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.’
The time for water actions is now. The risks of business as usual are much too high. We cannot continue to over-extract and misuse our water resources, nor is it acceptable to condemn a third of humanity to grossly inadequate access to clean water and sanitation. This is not sustainable. It is not right.
The alternative is to invest in water for people and water for the future. This is both affordable and feasible and can no longer remain a second or third order priority.
The world’s water challenges will not be fixed by good wishes or words alone. For the Founding Signatories of the Geneva Actions on Human Water Security the creation of a Global Water Fund to deliver on the Three Global Actions is fundamental to our common future.
As a child, I recall my father telling me: say less, do more. This should be a guide to resolve the world’s water problems. The Geneva Actions on Human Water Security is a statement of intent and one that the governments, civil society, the private sector, and all of us, need to back up with meaningful actions.