The former Chair of the UK's Sustainable Development Commission calls for a greater understanding of water stress, and commitment to the solutions.
In 1995, Ismail Seralgedin, then Senior Vice President at the World Bank, suggested that “many of the wars this century were about oil, but those of the next century will be over water”. Has the risk gone away? Or have we just been lucky?
What has happened is a growing recognition that water can no longer be taken for granted. Like so many other natural resources, it is now something we need to take care of.
However you look at it – from the impact of increasing global demand for food on water availability, to the impact of over-abstraction for agriculture or cities on watersheds and ecosystems – the facts are pretty stark, and are provoking a range of responses.
Smart companies, alongside their social and carbon footprints, are analysing their supply chains to identify their dependence on water. It glows bright red on their risk matrices as a current and future threat.
Ministries of agriculture are looking nervously at rainfall predictions to see whether their crops will continue to flourish, against the uncertainty of increasing climate volatility and changing rainfall patterns.
Nations are looking to source products and materials from parts of the world where rain is (for the moment at least) plentiful and, in an increasing number of instances, are acquiring land in developing countries to grow the food that they cannot grow for themselves. Saudi Arabia has recognised that growing wheat in the desert with precious fresh water makes no sense, even if paid for by petro dollars.
The world’s burgeoning cities are already struggling to provide water (and importantly sanitation) to the hundreds of millions who need it now, let alone the 2.5 billion extra who will join them in the next 40 years.
The answer? Efficiency and technology will play a vital role in enabling us to make the best use of this precious resource. Leakage wastes vast quantities of water from distribution systems around the world. However, it will require people and policy makers to really understand why this matters, and for that awareness to lead to a combination of regulation, realistic pricing and reduced consumption.
Water has not yet proved the spark that Seralgeldin thought it might. But the well-documented linkages between food, water, energy, economic growth and human wellbeing suggest that there is little reason to relax.
Will Day chairs the non-profit partnership Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor and is Sustainability Advisor to PwC (UK)
Photo: Paul Glendell/ Alamy