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Future of Water 2021

The future of water should not start with water

iStock / Getty Images Plus / mariusz_prusaczyk

Alex Mung

Head of Water and Environmental Resilience, World Economic Forum

In today’s COVID-adjusted global context, the debate should not be how to prioritise water, but rather how to connect it to other priorities.

Water as an enabler, not a competitor

Driven by escalating competing demands, deteriorating quality (due to pollution), chronic under-investment, and exacerbated by the impacts of climate change, the world’s water resources was already a system pushed to the edge. COVID-19 only magnified its vulnerability, inequity, and inadequacy for all to see. 

As the world strives to bounce back from the social and economic toll of the pandemic, both the public and private sector will be forced to make tough decisions in prioritising and allocating resources across competing economic, social, and environmental commitments. 

Where in the growing line-up of priorities does water now stand? Before or after revitalising jobs, protecting the health of our citizens, promoting social justice, enhancing nature-positive economies, and achieving the Paris Climate Agreement in the “Race to Zero”?

The key is not before or after, but “water stands together”. The question is not whether water is more or less important, but how can water can be coupled together with other pressing issues to achieve multiple wins?

At the Forum, we believe water can be an important connector, enabler, and unifier. We’re calling it making “Water Possible”.

Protecting against future pandemics

COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic we face. The importance of water and hand hygiene are now well understood. Our ability to treat viruses however is also being compromised. Antimicrobial-resistance (AMR) – the human rejection of antibiotics – is a fast-growing threat, that diminishes the effectiveness of our healthcare system. 

Our growing use, direct and indirect consumption, and exposure to antibiotics is causing a rise in AMR. Across the main sources of discharge – hospital and community wastes, agricultural runoff, and by-products from pharmaceutical manufacturing – more and more active substances are finding their way into our aquatic environments without adequate wastewater treatment. Where access to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities is limited, these waterbodies often serve as sources of drinking water or sanitation, leading to a perpetuating cycle. A recent study commissioned by the Forum, which will be released in April 2020, indicate under a ‘business as usual’ scenario and using conservative assumptions, AMR from water pollution could cause ~500,000 deaths per year, and in the range of $1-5 billion each year in healthcare expenditures. These costs will be concentrated in the Global South, and for some countries, will be unaffordable.

While an array of responses are needed, it is clear closing the gap for populations without access to water and hand hygiene facilities, and upgrading wastewater treatment capacity will be important measures and investments to make in safeguarding our health and economic cost from future pandemics.

This is but one example, and there are many others that need to be surfaced across topics like social justice, food, nature, and climate change. At the Forum, we believe water can be an important connector, enabler, and unifier. We’re calling it making “Water Possible”. 

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