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Water

Water vulnerability: A problem without borders

Water access and security is a big global issue and forms a key part of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. Investment Monitor assesses which countries have the highest water vulnerability.

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Indian villagers collect water at the bottom of a well in Vadodara district. According to Safe Water Network, in rural India 70% of people drink groundwater, which creates health problems within communities. (Photo by Sam Panthaky/AFP via Getty Images)

Every morning, many people get up, maybe splash their face with fresh water or have a shower, brew a cup of coffee, do the washing up… all simple actions that are taken for granted and are impossible without water.

Meanwhile, according to the World Bank, about 2.2 billion people around the world do not have safely managed drinking water services, 4.2 billion people do not have safely managed sanitation services, and three billion lack basic handwashing facilities.

Drawing from data collected from FAO Stat: Aquastat, the World Bank, the World Resources Institute and GlobalData, Investment Monitor has created its Water Vulnerability Index.

Data points used include the countries’ flood exposure, water capacity and drought risk, as well as the amount of water taken out of the system for agricultural and industrial purposes.

The ten most vulnerable countries are all in Africa, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Niger, Chad and Benin facing the most pressure.

What is striking is that the DRC is the country in Africa with the largest amount of water resources. It is not a matter of lack of water, however, but of a lack of access to it, often because the infrastructure is not sufficient.

The mortality rate attributed to unsafe water, unsafe sanitation and lack of hygiene in the DRC is 59.8 per 100,000 population, according to World Bank data.

A flood of investment needed, not a trickle

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number six is to “ensure access to water and sanitation for all”.

Based upon current expenditure – about $28.4bn a year – by 2030 every household in the world could have access to drinking water, adequate toilet facilities and somewhere to wash their hands.

However, according to Vedika Bhandarkar, chief global impact officer at global non-profit organisation Water.org, to meet SDG water and sanitation targets 6.1 and 6.2 – which go beyond these basic services and set a goal whereby all people have access to nearby drinking water and their toilet waste is safely managed – $114bn a year is needed.

Indeed, water availability around the world is having to contend with many challenges, such as climate change, economic development, higher levels of urbanisation and population growth – with the global population expected to reach ten billion by 2050. According to the World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct Water Stress Projections, this paints a particularly bleak future for Asia.

Across India, in both rural and urban areas, many people only get half-an-hour’s supply of water in the morning and the same again in the evening, explains Ravindra Sewak, India country director for non-profit organisation Safe Water Network.

“Water availability is way lower than what is required,” he adds. “In rural markets, almost 80% do not have tap water itself, people have to go fetch it and carry it home. There are two types of water; one is drinking and other is for daily needs. If you need five litres for drinking you need 50 additional litres for other needs.”

To provide a water network to rural areas in India that is fit for purpose, at least $50bn is needed, according to Sewak.

“In rural India, 70% of people drink groundwater,” he says. “As the water seeps through the ground, it picks up issues and contaminants from the ground. Arsenic, nitrates from fertilisers, heavy metals, microbes from the animal population; all of this generates a lot of microbial contamination to all surface water. [What we need is for] each time a person takes a glass to their mouth, they have to get purified water. Quantity is a challenge, quality is a challenge, and both need to be addressed.”

The wider cost of a poor water supply

The lack of a proper water supply and/or sanitation network can also affect a country’s economy.

“Globally, every year, almost $260bn is lost,” explains Bhandarkar. “This is the estimate [based upon a] lack of basic water and sanitation access. Looking at it through an economic lens, the World Bank has stated that every dollar invested in water and sanitation provides four times that in return. So four dollars in terms of lower health costs, healthcare costs, more productivity, and fewer premature deaths.”

How water is used also has an impact on both water availability and water quality, with the amount of water used in agriculture and industry being especially relevant.

“Globally, the amount of water used in agriculture and industries is approximately 80% [of the total]; the amount of water used for domestic consumption is really small compared to these two,” says Bhandarkar. “But as we are drawing more and more water, especially in countries such as India, where we are extracting much more than we are putting back, this particularly affects the poorest and the most vulnerable, as well as [heightening] the impact of climate change.”

The impact of this mismanagement of water resources when linked with climate change “gets manifested in two ways. One is either too little rain or too much rain and then [there is the] impact on water quality”, adds Bhandarkar.

The future of water

According to the World Bank, “future demand on water by all sectors will require as much as 25–40% of water to be reallocated from lower to higher productivity and employment activities”.

Where is this water going to come from? Well, it is mostly expected to be reallocated from agriculture, with both a physical and virtual shift being necessary.

Physically, by changing the amount of surface and groundwater resources that go into agriculture to urban, environmental and industrial sources, while also making sure that the production of foods, goods and services that require large amounts of water takes place in water-rich areas.

While Asia’s water supply issues have been documented, Europe’s water stress problems – when demand for water exceeds the available amount during a period or when poor quality restricts its use – look set to increase. According to a white paper by the European Commission on adapting to climate change, water stress across European countries is expected to increase from 19% in 2009 to 35% by the 2070s.

Another paper, recently published by the European Commission, on climate change and Europe’s water resources, points out that the impact of climate change on water resources is mainly affecting Mediterranean countries, but that under an average temperature increase of 2–3°C, Central Europe will also be facing major water scarcity.

Within the EU and UK, about 51.9 million people – and €995bn-worth of economic activity – are currently exposed to water scarcity, according to the paper’s research.

However, even in a scenario where global warming is kept to a 1.5°C temperature increase, the number of people and the value of the economic activity exposed to water scarcity could increase by 7.4 million people and €134bn-worth of economic activity.

The World Economic Forum lists water crises in its top five risks by severity of impact over the next ten years, and much needs to change in order to secure safe water access for the world’s population both now and in the future, with climate change adding to the problems suffered by those who are already the most affected.