Water is perhaps the most vital natural resource on the planet. It is necessary for human survival and a critical input into our food, manufacturing, and energy systems. It also sustains the ecosystems and climates upon which both our built and natural world rely. Today, the world’s water resources are increasingly under stress threatening ecosystems, economies, and society more broadly. According to the World Economic Forum, water crises have been among the top five global risks in each of the last seven years.
Humans withdraw about four thousand cubic kilometers of water globally every year. This is triple what we withdrew 50 years ago, and withdrawals continue to increase at a rate of about 1.6 percent per year. More than 2 billion people live in river basins where water demand outstrips supply, known as water-stressed areas. By 2050, that number is expected to jump to 5 billion. Currently, over 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is discharged back into rivers, streams, and oceans without any treatment, causing widespread damage to ecosystems and contamination of critical human water sources. Often, humans are unable to reliably access physically available water supplies due to inadequate infrastructure and weak governance. Today, 2.1 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water and 4.5 billion people lack safely managed sanitation services. Every year approximately 340,000 children under five die due from diarrhea-related disease, most commonly caused by inadequate access to drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH).
Underlying all the world’s water challenges are the looming repercussions of our changing global climate. Climate change introduces a huge amount of uncertainty to water supply reliability in the future. Higher temperatures mean snowpack melts more quickly, meaning more intense floods and longer droughts. The number of people at risk from floods is projected to hit 1.6 billion in 2050, with $45 trillion worth of assets at risk. On the other extreme, it is estimated that global water demand will increase 55 percent by 2050 and 3.9 billion people will live in river basins under severe water stress.