Global water crisis threatens $58trn in economic value, WWF claims

16th October 2023

Climate change and pollution are having a devastating impact on the world’s water and freshwater ecosystems, which are worth an estimated $58trn (£48trn) in annual economic value.

That is according to a new report from WWF, which reveals that one-third of wetlands have been lost since 1970 – declining three times as fast as forests – while freshwater wildlife populations have fallen by 83% on average.

This has been driven by the unsustainable extraction of water, harmful subsidies, alterations to river flows, pollution, and climate change, leading to food and water insecurity as rivers and lakes dry up, pollution increases and fisheries decline.

The report states that direct economic benefits from water, such as consumption for households and irrigated agriculture, amount to $7.5trn annually, while the unseen benefits – such as enhancing soil health and storing carbon – are valued at around $50trn every year.

It calls on governments, businesses and financial institutions to urgently increase investment in sustainable water infrastructure and bring an end to poor water management.

"Water and freshwater ecosystems are not only fundamental to our economies, they are also the lifeblood of our planet and our future,” said Stuart Orr, WWF’s global freshwater lead. “We need to remember that water doesn’t come from a tap – it comes from nature.

“Water for all depends on healthy freshwater ecosystems, which are also the foundation of food security, biodiversity hotspots, and the best buffer and insurance against intensifying climate impacts.”

For example, if actions are not taken today, the report claims that we could see a 25% loss of river flows in parts of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo basin by 2050, which currently supplies water to 6 million people in the US and 10 million people in Mexico.

It warns that the destruction of freshwater ecosystems – combined with poor water management – has left billions of people worldwide lacking access to clean water and sanitation, while water risks to businesses and economies are growing.

By 2050, around 46% of global GDP could come from areas facing high-water risk – up from 10% today – according to the report.

However, it cautions that outdated thinking, which focuses solely on more built infrastructure and ignores the source of the problem: degraded rivers, lakes, wetlands, and aquifers, will not solve the water crisis, “especially in the era of climate disruption”.

The report suggests that the solution lies in recognising the role of freshwater ecosystems as natural infrastructure that can support confronting the twin crises of climate change and nature loss.

It states that governments should join the Freshwater Challenge – a country-led initiative that aims to restore 300,000 km of degraded rivers globally by 2030 – and that businesses should transform their approach to water and scale up collective action to build more resilient river basins.

“The alarming impacts from droughts, floods, decline of critical species, and water availability for human use and agriculture are staggering,” said Michele Thieme, WWF’s deputy director for freshwater.

“There is still an opportunity to lessen and even prevent these impacts from causing further acute harm, but we must take action now to safeguard these vital life supporting ecosystems.”

Image credit: Shutterstock


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