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Global water crisis could spiral out of control

On this year’s World Water Day – an annual celebration highlighting the importance of freshwater resources initiated by the United Nations (UN) in 1993 – UNESCO in collaboration with UN-Water (a mechanism coordinating the efforts of UN entities and various international organizations working on water and sanitation issues) published a report warning of an imminent risk of a global water crisis. 

According to the experts, currently two billion people (26 percent of the global population) do not have safe drinking water, and 3.6 billion (46 percent) lack access to safely managed sanitation – a dire situation expected to worsen in the coming decades, particularly in urban areas, posing severe risks to the livelihoods of people all over the globe.

Scientists estimate that the global urban population facing water scarcity will likely double from 930 million in 2016 to between 1.7 and 2.4 billion by mid-century. Moreover, the increasing frequency of extreme, prolonged droughts will increase the stress on ecosystems worldwide, severely endangering a variety of plant and animal species.

“There is an urgent need to establish strong international mechanisms to prevent the global water crisis from spiraling out of control. Water is our common future and it is essential to act together to share it equitably and manage it sustainably,” said UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

The authors of the report argue that international collaboration is the main key to provide water access to people worldwide. While almost every water-related intervention involves some kind of cooperation – ranging from shared irrigation systems among farmers and communal management of water supply and sanitation infrastructure in cities to collaboration between urban and rural communities in order to maintain food security and uphold farmer incomes – when it comes to managing rivers and aquifers crossing national borders, larger collaborative networks are urgently needed to prevent a global water crisis.

In addition, data sharing and co-financing opportunities are crucial to address the current water problems and make sure they will not intensify in the following decades. For instance, financing schemes bringing together downstream users – such as cities, businesses, and utilities – to invest together in upstream environmental protection and agricultural land management will play a major role in improving water quantity and quality. Such ‘water funds’ have already proven successful in Mexico and Sub-Saharan Africa, and will likely benefit other parts of the world too.

Finally, inclusive shareholder participation is essential in planning and implementing water systems which match the needs and available resources of disadvantaged communities, while increasing public acceptance and ownership.  

“There is much to do and time is not on our side. This report shows our ambition and we must now come together and accelerate action. This is our moment to make a difference,” concluded Gilbert F. Houngbo, the Chair of UN-Water.

More information about this year’s UN World Water Development Report can be found here.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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