The future of water should not start with water
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 constitute a system already pushed to the edge. Covid-19 only magnified its vulnerability, inequity, and insufficiency.
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 be coupled together with other pressing issues to achieve multiple wins?
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 forthcoming study commissioned by the Forum, indicates 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.
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.