Child collects dirty water in Uganda

‘Vampiric’ overconsumption of water could lead to global crisis, UN warns

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The latest United Nations (UN) report has warned of a risk of water shortages due to unsustainable water use, pollution and global warming.

The world is "blindly travelling a dangerous path" of "vampiric overconsumption and overdevelopment", which could lead to a global water crisis, a new United Nations report has found.

By 2050, the number of people lacking access to safe drinking water in cities around the world is expected to double, with billions of people facing water shortages in the coming decades due to climate change, population growth and shifting agricultural practices, the organisation said. 

Published by the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the report has been published on World Water Day and ahead of the UN 2023 Water Conference, the first major UN water summit since 1977.

The report warned that water scarcity is "becoming endemic" because of overconsumption and pollution. Moreover, global warming is expected to only increase seasonal water shortages in both areas with abundant water and those already strained.

Ahead of the conference, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said water, "humanity's lifeblood", is being drained by "unsustainable water use, pollution and unchecked global warming".

Currently, two billion people do not have safe drinking water and 3.6 billion lack access to safely managed sanitation, the report found, with the global urban population facing water scarcity projected to potentially double from 930 million people in 2016 to between 1.7 and 2.4 billion people in 2050, when urban water demand is predicted to increase by 80 per cent.

The rising incidence of extreme and prolonged droughts is also stressing ecosystems, with dire consequences for both plant and animal species. 

Richard Connor, the lead author of the report, said that about 10 per cent of the global population "currently lives in areas that are high or critical water stress".

"With uncertainties on the up, there will definitely be a global crisis if we don’t address it," he added. 

As a result, roughly half of the world's population currently experiences severe water scarcity for at least part of the year, the report found. Moreover, given water use has been growing globally by about 1 per cent a year for the last 40 years, these figures are expected to only continue to rise unless immediate action is taken. 

In its conclusions, the report highlighted the importance of global collaboration to ensure the world's population continues to have access to clean drinkable water. 

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

The UN summit, co-hosted by the governments of Tajikistan and the Netherlands, will gather some 6,500 participants, including 100 ministers and a dozen heads of state and government. The aim of the conference is to discuss potential ways in which water resources could be managed more carefully, to avoid future shortages. 

Some potential solutions would be creating new funds and finance schemes that bring together users of water in cities with businesses and utilities to invest in water resources, such as habitats and river systems managed by farmers, to protect their water sources.

Moreover, states and stakeholders can cooperate in such areas as flood and pollution control, data sharing and co-financing.

Johannes Cullmann, the special scientific advisor to the president of the World Meteorological Organization, said “it’s a question of investing wisely”.

While water resources and how they are managed impact almost all aspects of sustainable development, including the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), he said current investments must be quadrupled to meet the annual estimated $600bn to $1tn required to realise SDG 6, on water and sanitation.

“Cooperation is the heart of sustainable development, and water is an immensely powerful connector,” Cullman said. “We should not negotiate water; we should deliberate on it.”

Experts agreed, with 18 UN independent researchers issuing a joint statement saying that water should be “managed as a common good, not a commodity”.

“Considering water as a commodity or a business opportunity will leave behind those that cannot access or afford the market prices,” they declared. 

At the moment, 153 countries share nearly 900 rivers, lakes and aquifer systems, with more than half having signed agreements regarding these resources, proving cooperation on the issue is possible. 

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