Going Down the Plughole

The Looming Water Crisis Facing Our Planet Needs to be Taken Much More Seriously

Scarcity and climate change will be the biggest water issues our planet will face by the middle of the century. These concerns have the potential to destabilize the global economy and result in potentially huge impacts on human populations and our ecosystems.

Worst of all, we seem to be sleepwalking into this abyss without a second thought, watching the inevitable occur. Perhaps these well-worn terms of “scarcity” and “climate change” have gradually lost some of their potency. Perhaps we all feel that we already understand the issues at play and expect everything to just work itself out. Quite simply, it won’t. Nowhere near enough is being done to reverse global trends. As the world’s population explodes, the threat to our jobs, communities, and personal safety will become all the more real.

A recent poll of participants by Arcadis at the International Water Association (IWA) conference in Lisbon indicated that the top two water issues that will affect us all by 2050 are water scarcity and climate change adaptation.

Climate change – with extreme weather events in the near term – will affect water in our communities in an enormous number of ways, some of which we may not have yet even imagined. Despite the rhetoric of governmental pledges and international targets, far too little progress has been made. The cost of rectifying the problems brought about by rising tides, changing river dynamics and extreme weather events will be many, many times more than the investment required to avoid them in the first place. Not only that, but unless a great deal more is invested in flood prevention and protection measures, around one in every hundred people in flood-hit areas may lose their lives in future floods , and millions of climate refugees will be displaced all over the world.

These risks are not confined purely to existing high-risk parts of the planet. Take the example of Paris. If the Seine were to flood to the same level that it did back in 1910, it would cost the French economy around €60bn, jeopardize 400,000 jobs and seriously impact around 5 million people. All in all, it is a very bleak picture, but one that can also be avoided.

Let us now look at water scarcity. In water scarce regions, which grow constantly and could eventually extend way beyond what we currently know as the ‘developing’ world, communities will need to focus on diversifying their water supplies. Cities are not always located near abundant, high-quality surface water supplies; some have outgrown their freshwater supplies, while others compete with regional agricultural, industrial and commercial users or are depleting aquifers. It is for this reason that more and more communities are turning to already impaired supplies, reclaimed wastewater and desalinated ocean water just to meet the sheer weight of demand.

Evidently, money needs to be invested in new water infrastructure, and lots of it. Floods, water rationing, higher bills and water shut offs will affect many of us and the bill for avoiding this fate could reach up to $100 billion each and every year, a huge chunk of global GDP. So, with the planet heavily impacted by these issues, where is the money going to come from?

This is not an easy question to answer. Research indicates that investors will have an estimated $1 trillion available for infrastructure investment in Europe alone over the next decade. This is mainly due to a rush of new private money which has entered the market in recent years. Furthermore, annual investment in integrated urban solutions worldwide will go beyond the $200 billion mark within the next fifteen years. This could be spent on water but, as there is presently no tangible short-term investment return available, the economic incentives do not currently exist.

What we need to see is a coming together of the world’s biggest financial institutions, global water leaders, business, governments and NGOs with a view to planning the long-term future of our planet and its water resources. With the world’s population predicted to grow by around forty percent between now and 2050, there is absolutely no time to waste and the stakes could not be any higher. The phrase ‘climate change’ may have been around for a long, long time but its meaning could not be any more current and will only become more so while we sit back and fail to act.

John Batten

Global Cities Director Ask me a question