Water is essential to life, not just to drink and to grow enough food to feed the world’s 7bn people (and rising) but also for industry, energy and economic development. The burdens of disease, hunger and poverty can all be traced back to a lack of clean water. Add on the impact of climate change and the burgeoning demand from cities, and a bad situation becomes dire. We simply can’t go on using water in the way we do now.
There is no single answer to the problem, no one-size-fits-all solution; the situation is too complex for that. The UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water, on which I serve, has suggested targeted activities to achieve universal access to clean drinking water and sanitation, a common vision on waste water, and increased water productivity in agriculture. Europe has helped a good deal – Germany with its Bonn conference, Stockholm’s Water Week and the 6th World Water Forum in France – but more is needed.
Europe could, for example, offer more support to groups working to develop technologies that reduce the energy required for desalination, or take the lead in reducing the energy used in water systems (and the water used in energy systems). In agriculture, Europe could help accelerate efforts to raise productivity in rain-fed irrigation systems, improving crop yields and increasing incomes for poor farmers. European cities and water companies could partner utilities in the developing world to improve water supplies and sanitation. When properly separated and treated, municipal waste can add to a city’s stock of usable water and allow energy and fertilizer to be harvested. These initiatives will cost money, of course, but if we do it right, everyone will win in the end.
Margaret Catley-Carlson is Chair of the Steering Committee, Global Water Partnership.