From out of space, the earth looks blue; far stretching seas, wide oceans, meandering rivers and placid lakes cover 70% of its surface. Despite the immense volume of water, only 3% is safe to drink. Most of which is inaccessible—either trapped in underground reservoirs or frozen in icecaps. Leaving only 1% of the world’s water that is both safe and accessible for use.
Blue Gold: What does investing in water mean for the planet?
By Fiona Murphy
The scientific journal, The Lancet, reported that ‘water demand is projected to increase by 55% worldwide between 2000 and 2050’.
Is there enough water to go around?
The Lancet’s planetary health report states that ‘By 2050, 3.9 billion people (more than 40% of the world’s population) are projected to be living in river basins under severe water stress.’
So it is not surprising to hear water now being referred to as ‘blue gold.’ With demand far outstripping supply, water has been dubbed a sure fire way to make money. As far back as the year 2000, Fortune Magazine declared: “Water is one of the great business opportunities. Water promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century: the precious commodity that determines the wealth of nations.”
Given that the operating costs of desalinating seawater are high, most businesses in the global water industry deal with managing supply. With the industry currently valued at an estimated $400 billion per annum, it’s no wonder that investment firms are popping up all over the internet with promises such as ‘immense profit potential’ and ‘solid, long-term water investment’.
But what does the monetization of water mean for the World? Will water become a luxury only few can afford? Does this signal the rise of extreme poverty and millions of deaths by dehydration? Will this fast track habitat destruction? Will rivers be redirected creating acres of barren wastelands?
Actually, the UN suggests the opposite; those are the catastrophes that will occur if we don’t act now. Investing in water is crucial for our survival.
Since the inaugural World Water Day on March 22, 1993, the UN has focused on improving the availability of fresh water as a means of improving the health and wellbeing of people.
During the most recent World Water Day, the UN launched a report entitled ‘Water and Jobs’. The report’s conclusion is clear—‘no water, no jobs’. The UN estimates that 80% of all jobs depend on water.
Whilst agriculture is responsible for 70% of freshwater withdrawal, it is not the only water-dependent industry. Industries reliant on water range from transport, textiles, agriculture, power generation, construction, pharmaceuticals and health. Chances are incredibly high that your job requires the use of water at some stage in the value chain. You’ve probably experienced the distracting effects of dehydration. So even if you can’t see the direct impact water has on your industry you will have certainly felt the impact it has on your wellbeing.
What if your drinking water was making you ill?
The World Health Organization estimates that ‘at least 1.8 billion people use a drinking-water source contaminated with faeces.’ Such numbers are staggering. However, the WHO sees this as an opportunity for improvement, estimating that for every $US1 invested, ‘returns of US$3-34, depending on the region and technology.’ These returns include economic growth from improved productivity as well as saving from reduced healthcare costs.
The message from the WHO and UN is clear—investing in water makes sound economic sense.
What if we do nothing?
The UN notes the ‘cost of inaction’ is already significant. The report cites the estimated global cost of reduced agricultural productivity—due to land degradation—is between US$11billion to $27.3billion per annum. That means land driven barren and inhospitable by poor water management. It is not hard to find examples of poorly planned dam projects marring the landscape, or waterways diverted leaving once deep rivers no more than a trickle.
The mismanagement of water has already caused irreversible damage. According to The Lancet, roughly ‘70% of the world’s wetlands existing in 1900 were lost by the end of that century, with even higher losses in Asia.’
The UN reports that ‘estimates indicate that about 30% of global water abstraction is lost through leakage.’ The potential savings from upgrading infrastructure ‘could be as high as US$115 billion annually by 2030 (in 2011 prices)’. Imagine the amount of land that could be saved through fixing leaks and ensuring that we optimise this scare resource.
Water investment also includes managing the effects of water-related natural disasters; 4.2 billion people were affected by floods, storms and droughts between 1992 and 2014. This is set to rise with climate change research forecasting ‘an increase in the frequency and duration of both heatwaves and extreme rainfall events’. In the ‘Water and Jobs’ report, the UN urges governments to invest developing emergency plans.
The UN clarifies that investing in water is not just the privatisation of the resource: ‘It is everyone’s responsibility, including States, the private sector, development banks and civil society, to partake in global and local efforts to improve the living conditions of millions through the sustainable management of water, and the provision of drinking water and sanitation and decent job opportunities for all.’
Water is a Human Right
In 2010, the UN General Assembly explicitly stated ‘everyone has the right to sufficient, continuous, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use.’
It is a human right to access to water. This means developing robust systems of governance to manage the distribution of water. The UN continually acknowledges the complexity of the issue and notes that ‘the best-fit scenario is likely to be highly situational, and requires careful analysis of service costs, transaction costs and policy environment, including the competition aspect’.
Perhaps, by calling water ‘blue gold’ and speaking to corporations in their own lingo—‘profit potential’ and ‘sustained economic growth’—it will smooth the transition towards creating greener economies.
Investing in water can always start in your own home, town or city. By fixing leaky taps, taking shorter showers and planting native gardens, we can help make that 1% of safe water go further.
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