WWF Outlines the High Cost of Cheap Water

The Rio Grande River in the morning with trees on a hill in the background

(Credit: Canva Pro)

by | Oct 23, 2023

The World Wildlife Fund raises concern about global water supply in a recent report that reveals the staggering economic value of water and freshwater ecosystems, which stands at an estimated $58 trillion annually, equivalent to 60% of the global gross domestic product.

However, this value is under threat due to the degradation of rivers, lakes, wetlands, and aquifers, which are essential not only for the global economy but also for human and planetary health.

The WWF report, titled The High Cost of Cheap Water, highlights that water doesn’t magically appear from taps — it originates from nature. Freshwater ecosystems are not only fundamental to economies but are also the foundation of food security, biodiversity, and resilience against climate impacts.

The Alarming Decline

Since 1970, the world has lost one-third of its remaining wetlands, and freshwater wildlife populations have declined by an average of 83%. This concerning trend has far-reaching consequences, leading to water shortages, food insecurity, and the deterioration of critical ecosystems. It exacerbates economic pressures and hampers global efforts to combat nature loss and adapt to climate change.

The report points out regional crises, such as the situation in the United States and Mexico, where the Rio Grande-Rio Bravo River (RGRB) is drying up due to extensive human water withdrawals and the exacerbating effects of climate change. This river sustains water supplies for more than 6 million people in the U.S. and 10 million people in Mexico. If immediate action is not taken, the RGRB basin could experience a 25% loss of river flows by 2050, the report finds, impacting people, wildlife, and businesses.

Economic Value: Seen and Unseen Benefits/Risks

Direct economic benefits derived from water, including household consumption, irrigated agriculture, and industrial use, amount to a minimum of $7.5 trillion annually. However, the report also underscores the substantial unseen benefits, such as water purification, soil health improvement, carbon storage, and flood and drought protection, which are seven times higher at around $50 trillion annually.

The degradation of rivers, lakes, wetlands, and groundwater aquifers poses a significant threat to these values. Unsustainable water extraction, harmful subsidies, alterations to river flows, pollution, and climate change-related impacts are endangering freshwater ecosystems. Two-thirds of the world’s largest rivers are no longer free-flowing, and wetlands continue to be lost three times faster than forests.

The destruction of freshwater ecosystems, coupled with poor water management, leaves billions of people worldwide without access to clean water and sanitation. Simultaneously, water-related risks to businesses and economies are on the rise. By 2050, approximately 46% of global GDP could come from areas facing high water risk, up from the current 10%.

Solutions and the Path Forward

To address the global water crisis, WWF calls for a collective effort involving governments, businesses, and financial institutions. Urgent investment in sustainable water infrastructure is crucial, but it must go hand in hand with the restoration and preservation of freshwater ecosystems.

WWF recommends that governments participate in the Freshwater Challenge, a country-led initiative aiming to restore degraded rivers and wetlands globally by 2030 while protecting intact freshwater ecosystems. Businesses also need to transform their approach to water and collaborate to build more resilient river basins.

In conclusion, water is a precious resource that underpins the global economy, food security, and the well-being of both humans and the planet. The WWF report serves as a reminder that the degradation of freshwater ecosystems threatens the very essence of life. Recognizing the role of freshwater ecosystems as natural infrastructure can help address the challenges of climate change and nature loss while highlighting the need to meet significant sustainable targets.

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