Each year since 1993, 22 March has been recognized as World Water Day, an annual event to raise awareness and focus attention on the issue of water and its importance. Water sustains life, enables us to grow food, supports industrial activities and preserves the environment in which we live.
Yet, anyone with a healthy dose of cynicism might wonder whether we need to devote an entire day to the cause. It is true that there have been considerable achievements and successes in providing people with sufficient quantity and quality of water. The world should celebrate the fact that the United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) to halve the number of people who don’t have sustainable access to safe drinking water was achieved five years ahead of schedule.
However, much remains to be done, and continues to be a global concern. In fact, water scarcity was ranked third in the list of global concerns in the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Risk Report. This makes it the third consecutive year that water has been identified as a top five global risk in this annual survey of more than 1,000 experts. The 2030 Water Resources Group (WRG) estimates that by 2030 the world will face a deficit of 40% between global water demand and available supply.
Let’s examine this a little deeper, looking specifically at the 2014 World Water Day theme of “water and energy”.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that the world economy will need at least 40% more energy by 2030, an increase that will be highest for non-OECD countries. Asia will need 65% more water, to meet the demand from its industry and energy sectors, posing an interesting challenge for a region where close to 80% of its freshwater is already channelled into agriculture. According to the World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, 51% of China’s new coal-fired power plants would be built in areas of high or extremely high water stress, posing a threat to the country’s continued growth.
The challenge of water resources is not limited to the developing world. In the United States, the energy sector already uses as much as 50% of the country’s water withdrawals. Energy demands are growing, and America could well see a 165% increase in demand for freshwater access by 2030. The United States Geological Survey estimates that to produce and burn the 1 billion tonnes of coal the country uses each year, the mining and utility industries need to withdraw an annual 55-75 trillion imperial gallons of water. To help put this into perspective, that’s the same volume of water that pours over Niagara Falls in five months.
There is certainly a compelling case for continuing to raise awareness of these challenges and promote cooperation and shared action to meet the water needs of our thirsty world.
So this year, while we celebrate the progress that has been made to date, let’s also reflect and consider the challenges that lie ahead, and renew our commitment to closing the water gap.
Author: Alex Mung is head of the Water Initiative at the World Economic Forum
Image: A waterfall along the Blackberry River in Canaan, Connecticut REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi