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By Benedito Braga, President of the World Water Council
President, World Water Council

Water is a vital element for human life but it is also a limited resource, under pressure from rapidly growing and wealthier populations that are driving ever-increasing demand. Meanwhile, even now, millions of people across the world are faced with water shortages that impact their ability to have a healthy life and to produce food for their subsistence.

Lack of water affects economic growth, food and energy security, and human health. The business community reports in the latest Global Risk Report of the World Economic Forum that water is the highest global concern for the next 10 years. These views are followed by governments as a recent report issued by the U.S. National Security Council claims that “water may become a more significant source of contention than energy or minerals out to 2030 at both the intrastate and interstate levels”. Many of the largest river systems in the world run across a number of countries, each with their own political agenda, among them the Nile, Congo, Mekong, Tigris, and the Danube. All are overtaxed and future competition for water rights could ultimately lead to conflicts. Groundwater resources supply irrigation waters for almost half of the world’s agriculture, yet throughout the world they are also being polluted and drained faster than they can be replenished, such as the aquifers in the West USA, North China Plain, northwestern India and the Middle East.

Water, finance and the economy are closely linked. Research led by the University of Oxford shows that the risks of water security cost the world economy in excess of hundreds of billions of dollars annually. World leaders will be forced to pay greater attention to water security, looking at water as a solution rather than a problem. The World Health Organization estimates that every US$1 invested in water and sanitation provides a US$4.30 return, presenting an enormous economic and social opportunity as well as opening the path to sustainable growth.

Water security is an inescapable challenge. G20 policymakers will have to invest more in water infrawater-tapstructure and governance to achieve water security. Investments may have to be diverted from other important areas to face this challenge. This of course will imply hard political choices. New infrastructure is needed to minimize water scarcity, to reduce the impact of floods and inadequate access to water supply and sanitation.

Meeting the world’s water related Sustainable Development Goals, such as universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and having enough water for future food production, will cost US$840 billion a year; US$1.8 trillion over the next 20 years. However, that level of investment would deliver more than US$3 trillion annually in economic, environmental and social benefits. The technical solutions already exist for these massive water resources development projects, but economic incentives and innovative financing models will be needed to bring them into reality.

By any measure, water security is a genuine economic opportunity to invest in sustainable and resilient water infrastructure. As such, the business and financial community will be one of the key influencers of government policy, as well as a driver of innovation. In a sign that the international world is getting the message, the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the President of the World Bank announced in January 2016 the formation of a High-Level Panel on Water. This group has the mandate to mobilize action towards meeting the sustainable development goal for water. The World Water Council has been instrumental in mobilizing the political actors towards this initiative.

The Panel is engaging the world’s political leaders. It is co-chaired by the Presidents of Mexico and Mauritius and made up of Heads of State and Governments. The panel will focus on mobilizing financial resources and developing implementation strategies. It is an important step forward as it puts water at the highest level of the political agenda.

There is no easy answer to the water crisis, but the challenge can be turned into a major opportunity to solve one of the world’s most pressing threats. It is an opportunity to assure one of the most basic natural resources that is critical for continued social-economic development around the world. In mobilizing political action there is the power to induce positive change. If decision-makers at all levels and across sectors meet, discuss and take action together for water security and sustainability, we can move the world forward towards a fairer and more secure future.

Meeting the world’s water related Sustainable Development Goals, such as universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and having enough water for future food production, will cost US$840 billion a year; US$1.8 trillion over the next 20 years.

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