Sowing the seeds of change to solve the water crisis

Posted in : on 19 August 2023

Solving the water crisis is central to our future on a livable planet. Whether it is too much, too little, or too polluted water, this triple threat, exacerbated by climate change, denies billions of people reliable access to safe water and sanitation.  It threatens economies, fuels migration, and can ignite conflict. We need global action to establish water security for green, resilient, and inclusive growth, and to tackle the water-climate-conflict nexus. 

Two young girls carry containers of fresh water across dry land. Photo Credit: Riccardo Mayer/Shutterstock

Despite progress, we are behind in meeting the water-related SDGs, which has a direct effect on overall development. Current trends suggest that, by 2030, 1.6 billion people will lack safely managed drinking water, 2.8 billion people will lack safely managed sanitation, and 1.9 billion people will lack basic hand hygiene facilities. 

The answer to better water management lies in the four “I’s”—investment, innovation, information, and institutions.  The water sector needs a massive increase in public and private finance to meet the demand. Innovation can boost efficiency, cut costs, and reduce waste. Information—sharing global data and knowledge—helps governments to improve water security and sanitation, while supporting partnerships and targeted investment. Institutional reform can improve the enabling environment for investment, improving efficiency, and boosting economies and job creation.

It will require a new way of doing things—a new way of thinking about and managing water. This is the purpose of this year’s World Water Week, Seeds of Change: Innovative Ideas for a Water-Wise World. The conference, which will take place from August 20–24 in Stockholm, Sweden, invites a rethink of the ideas, innovations, and governance systems that are needed in an increasingly unstable and water-scarce world. 

It is global events like these that can help generate innovative ideas and, crucially, investment. Investing in water supports people, the planet, and the economy—it is a critical accelerator for achieving the SDGs. Globally, investment needs for the water sector exceed $1.37 trillion and must increase six-fold from current levels  to meet SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation for all) by 2030. Yet water currently attracts less than 2 percent of public spending, and a similar low level of private investment in low- and middle-income countries. 

We need both public and private financing and action, with a focus on countries and regions that are off track on water-related SDGs. This will pay dividends: every $1 invested in resilience yields a $4 return  through saved healthcare costs and heightened productivity, boosting quality of life and job prospects, particularly for women and young people. Scaling up water investment will result in healthier people and ecosystems, better services for farmers, improved water storage for long-term resilience, and sustained fiscal benefits. The positive outcomes will be particularly felt in fragile, climate, and disaster-vulnerable countries, where conflict and climate change are putting immense strain on communities.

The World Bank is focused on finding solutions. As the largest multilateral financier of water in developing countries, with a $27 billion portfolio, we work to boost public and private finance to solve the water crisis . In the financial year 2023, the World Bank supported programs provided access to water or sanitation to nearly 30 million people. 

We will build on this momentum and accelerate progress in the next three years. We plan to deliver new or improved irrigation on 8.5 million hectares of land, helping 8 million farmers (of whom 2 million are women) adopt improved technology through the potential replication of the Methane-Reducing and Water-Saving Paddy Rice Program for Results in Asia and Africa, and scaling up farmer-led irrigation initiatives. We will also support national efforts such as the Ethiopia One-WASH Project, to give 400 million people access to water and sanitation. The World Bank’s regional climate resilience projects aim to reduce flood and drought risks for 25 million people in Eastern and Southern Africa. 

We will also continue to mobilize investment of up to $50 billion across the development sector and governments through innovative financing mechanisms that leverage private capital and guarantees in water security. This work will be informed by our Action Plan on Scaling Up Financing for Water, due to launch shortly, which will outline how the World Bank intends to harness existing instruments and new financing solutions to mobilize more private capital, innovation, and expertise for priorities linked to water and climate at national, regional, and global levels. 

A subtler, but equally important, aspect of the World Bank’s work is its extensive analytical outputs supported by the Global Water Security and Sanitation Partnership (GWSP), which inform policies and strategies, strengthen institutions, and contribute to the global development agenda. For example, The Hidden Wealth of Nations: Economics of Groundwater in Times of Climate Change, released this year, shows how groundwater serves as nature’s multi-risk insurance, and is key to poverty reduction, resilience, and climate adaptation. Droughts and Deficits presents new estimates of the effects of dry episodes and droughts on gross domestic product and highlights the need for stewardship of forests and other natural capital that affect the hydrological cycle. What the Future Has in Store: A New Paradigm for Water Storage shows that while demand for water storage is increasing, the volume of freshwater storage is declining, creating a global water storage gap. It calls for more cooperation among nations in shared international waters. 

In addition to this knowledge work, the World Bank helps countries make evidence-based decisions, with initiatives such as the Global Water Data Portal, due to launch soon. We will leverage and deploy all relevant, existing World Bank-convened global partnerships to scale up financing for water security and climate adaptation.  These efforts are all supported by GWSP which  brings together bilateral partners and can incentivize investments by providing recipient-executed grant resources to complement IBRD/IDA operations and help crowd in Climate Finance and the 2030 Water Resources Group, a global public-private partnership for water security with a number of private sector among others as members. 

We believe in pushing for change through these partnerships such as the GWSP and 2030WRG, and the convening power of global events like World Water Week that bring development partners together to catalyze concrete action. During this event, the World Bank Group will participate in various sessions on a wide range of topics, including digitalization for water utilities, tools for managing flood and drought risks, water services for refugees, and smart water management in rice cultivation.

You can follow our sessions via @WorldBankWater using #wwweek.

Saroj Kumar Jha

Global Director, Water Global Practice
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