Water remains too little, too much or too dirty for too many. At the long-awaited UN Water Conference, policymakers must radically reform how water is governed globally and commit more investment to tackle the water crisis.

Former British prime minister Harold Wilson once remarked that “a week is a long time in politics”. If this is true, then it has been an eternity since the first and only United Nations Water Conference, which took place in March 1977 in Mar del Plata, Argentina.

The world was a very different place back then – there were almost four billion fewer people on Earth, Jimmy Carter was the United States president and ABBA was about to top the charts with ‘Dancing Queen’.

While the world (and music tastes) may have changed, the global water crisis is as critical as ever. With the second UN Water Conference only now taking place in New York City – roughly 46 years later – we cannot let this opportunity to take stock of what’s been achieved and address outstanding challenges pass us by.

Access to safe drinking water remains unequal in the developing and developed world. Photo: Mark/stock.adobe.com

A muddy picture

Overall, progress has been patchy, as we outline in our new research.

Freshwater has become scarcer per person, more polluted and more in demand, resulting in increased competition and conflict.

Yet progress has been made in terms of access to the safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene crucial to human health and wellbeing. Today, 70 per cent of the world’s population has access to safely managed water – double the figure from 1977.

However, this remains deeply unequal. Fewer than 30 per cent of Africans have access to safely managed drinking water services compared to more than 90 per cent of North Americans and Europeans.

Some 60 per cent of people now have access to safely managed sanitation services, up from about 25 per cent at the time of the conference in Argentina.

Yet 1.7 billion people still lack basic sanitation services, and at least half a billion people are forced to defecate in the open.

Socio-economic disadvantage, exacerbated by COVID-19, has increased the number of people and communities that face water risks, and women and children bear the highest burden.

Data on what’s happening in the water world is much improved, but key gaps remain.

For example, metrics on access to sanitation and discharge of safely treated domestic and industrial wastewater are not reported by most countries. What is not measured is typically not managed.

But even what is measured may not always reflect reality. Reporting on ‘clean’ water can be unreliable or misleading, including in developed countries like Australia.

Transboundary issues also continue to strain relations, from Southeast Asia to North America, despite numerous bilateral and multilateral treaties intended to share this precious resource more equitably.

The climate crisis is a water crisis

One of the most important shifts in water science and perception since 1977 is around the climate emergency.

At a multilateral level, it was first articulated as a global challenge in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, but has taken a pivotal position in global environmental negotiations and is now part of the zeitgeist.

Too much and too little water are the most significant climate change impacts, yet policy responses that make the critical connections between irreversible changes in the global water cycle and climate actions remain weak.

Policy responses need to take into account major changes to the global water cycle as a result of climate change. Photo: Matt Palmer/stock.adobe.com

Sadly, the scorecard is still poor in terms of how we treat water and nature. More than a third of the world’s wetlands were lost between 1970 and 2015, primarily due to land-use changes and inappropriate or ineffective water regulation.

Global deforestation has continued apace, resulting in declining water quality, increased flooding risks, and reduced and changing precipitation, among other consequences. Freshwater withdrawals—taking from ground or surface water sources and conveying to a place of use—almost doubled since the first UN Water Conference and now exceed the sustainable global limit for freshwater.

Setting a new agenda

So what needs to change if we are to deliver on the promise of ‘water for all’?

First, ensuring access to safely managed water and sanitation for all is vital.

This must go beyond grey infrastructure such as pipes and toilets to include the informal water sector, to ensure safe water is delivered to people who cannot access it through pipes.

Green infrastructure, whereby the natural water cycle is protected or mimicked, will be critical. This is especially so for at-risk communities, for which it can freely provide many valuable ecosystems services such as freshwater provision, sediment regulation, and flood mitigation.

But this doesn’t just make sense for consumers. These ‘nature-based solutions’ are estimated to be worth US$3 trillion by 2050 in terms of avoided replacement costs for grey infrastructure. Unfortunately, these solutions attract only a fraction of the effort and investment provided to grey infrastructure.

Equity of water access means policymakers must go beyond building pipes and toilets and consider green infrastructure options. Photo: Scope Images/stock.adobe.com

Second, the world must change how water is managed.

There are too many institutions managing water without coordination – or even communication – and this leads to worse outcomes.

Furthermore, important water data often remains inadequate and inaccessible, and conflicts between water user groups can stymie progress.

Regulatory capture – wherein state actors are unduly influenced by vested interests – must also end, in both the Global North and South.

The response to each governance failure must be bespoke, but all reforms should be based on principles of transparency, so that decision-making processes can be scrutinised, ideally by an independent regulator.

Third, we must consider more than just the market value of water in our policy decisions.

At present, too much water is allocated for purposes that generate the highest market values, such as cotton production, and too little is allocated for other social, cultural and environmental needs. Systematic consideration of these non-market values is essential to properly evaluate trade-offs and to ensure water is allocated in a way that delivers the greatest societal benefits.

We need transformational change when it comes to water. This change must be both bespoke to local contexts and deliver globally.

Critically, change needs to start today, because the world cannot afford to wait another 46 years to fix the water crisis.

This piece was written by Professor R Quentin Grafton, Distinguished Professor Asit K Biswas, Dr Hilmer Bosch, Dr Safa Fanaian, Professor Joyeeta Gupta, Aromar Revi, Dr Neha Sami and Dr Cecilia Tortajada.

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