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World Water Day: Global water scarcity to double by 2050 – UNESCO

With a resolution accepted on December 22, 1992, the United Nations General Assembly declared March 22 of each year the World Day for Water, to be observed starting in 1993.

Ahead of this year’s World Water Day, the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published a detailed report, the World Water Development Report 2023, on Tuesday.

Published in tandem with the first major UN conference on water in over 45 years, taking place in New York between 22 and 24 March, the report reveals some stark truths, as it “highlights collaborative ways actors can work together to overcome common challenges”.

“Water is our common future and we need to act together to share it equitably and manage it sustainably,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay says.

“As the world convenes for the first major United Nations conference on water in the last half century, we have a responsibility to plot a collective course ensuring water and sanitation for all.”

According to this year’s World Water Development report, 26 percent of the global population (2 billion people) in 2020 didn’t have access to safe drinking water. An alarming 46 percent (3.6 billion) lacked access to basic sanitation.

Growing water scarcity 

Richard Connor, the editor-in-chief of the report, tells a news conference that the estimated cost of meeting UN goals, to ensure all people have access to clean water and sanitation by 2030, is between $600 billion and $1 trillion a year.

But equally important, Connor goes on to say, is forging partnerships with investors, financiers, governments and climate crisis communities to ensure that money is invested in ways to sustain the environment and provide potable water and sanitation to those who lack it.

“The global urban population facing water scarcity is projected to potentially double from 930 million in 2016 to between 1.7 and 2.4 billion people, in 2050,” the report notes.

“If we don’t address [water scarcity], there definitely will be a global crisis,” Connor says.

The report flags the heightened demand for water worldwide (by roughly 1 percent per year over the last 40 years), noting water use “is expected to grow at a similar rate through to 2050, driven by a combination of population growth, socio-economic development and changing consumption patterns”.

According to Connor, this phenomenon is primarily observed in developing countries and emerging economies, where industrial growth and rapid increase in the population of cities are driving factors. It is in these urban areas “that you’re having a real big increase in demand,” he says.

Connor also points out that agriculture uses 70 percent of global water supplies, suggesting that irrigation for crops needs to be more efficient –– as seen in some countries using drip irrigation and saving water. “That allows water to be available to cities,” he says.

Climate crisis

The report also touches on climate crisis, as a result of which “seasonal water scarcity will increase in regions where it is currently abundant – such as Central Africa, East Asia and parts of South America – and worsen in regions where water is already in short supply, such as the Middle East and the Sahara in Africa.”

On average, “10 percent of the global population lives in countries with high or critical water stress” – and up to 3.5 billion people live under conditions of water stress at least one month a year, says the report.

As for water pollution, Connor says, the biggest source of pollution is untreated wastewater.

“Globally, 80 percent of wastewater is released to the environment without any treatment,” he explains, “and in many developing countries it’s pretty much 99 percent.”

“Cooperation is the heart of sustainable development, and water is an immensely powerful connector,” Johannes Cullmann, special scientific advisor to the president of the World Meteorological Organization, says. “We should not negotiate water; we should deliberate on it.”

Water, after all, is a human right, he declares.

Drought, floods and sickness: Key takeaways from UN’s water report

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