Ideas & Insights / All Perspectives / Ideas & Insights

Water and the World

Photo credit: James Marvin Phelps
Photo credit: James Marvin Phelps
SHARE THISBy 2030 global water demand is expected to exceed current supply by 40 percent.
SHARE THISCalifornia is in its fourth year of drought – how can we balance the demand for fresh water?
SHARE THISEradicating human poverty and hunger depend fundamentally on water security.


Fresh water is vital to human life and well-being. Along with food and shelter, it is our most fundamental need. While water does indeed fall from the sky, its secure provision for human need depends upon decisions and actions related to our management of the biosphere. Healthy, functioning freshwater ecosystems provide reliable and quality water flows, without which society as we know it could simply cease: energy, food, and health—all indispensable to human development—rely on the water services provided by natural ecosystems. Freshwater ecosystems are particularly crucial, and frequently underappreciated for their role in water purification, flood mitigation and treatment of human and industrial wastes. Eradicating human poverty and hunger will depend fundamentally on water security—for both people and ecosystems.

“By 2030 global water demand is expected to exceed current supply by 40 percent.”

Under current population and economic growth trends, by 2030 global water demand is expected to exceed current supply by 40 percent according to the United Nations. Dramatic changes to natural freshwater ecosystems, unsustainable water use and climate change are colliding with ever-growing demands for water to meet food, energy, and industrial production needs. These are driving an alarming gap that our present development actions must address; not merely for the sake of avoiding potential future threats to human lives and livelihoods, but to address today’s crises as well.

The situation in Sao Paulo provides a preview of what might be ahead. The city’s water resource may run completely dry by year’s end. To cope, the city is enforcing increasingly drastic and expensive water conservation measures. Residents may soon face water rationing—two days of water followed by four days without water—measures that would seem unthinkable in a country that contains 12 percent of the world’s fresh water resources. But the growth of the city rapidly outpaced the ability of the system to provide water.

Closer to home, California is in its fourth year of drought. Dwindling water reserves are prompting legislators to consider emergency water conservation requirements for city residents and farmers alike.

Water is critical to growth. Without it, cities, industry, agriculture, and most of our energy production systems grind to a halt. Drought events have detectable impacts on the GDP of countries, especially in agriculture-dominant nations. The old adage holds that water flows uphill towards money; but increasingly we’re seeing that water is a currency driving (and limiting) economic growth. We are rapidly depleting this vital currency through our overzealous use. As water resources get over-allocated to economically productive uses, we aren’t leaving anything behind for the environment. Rivers such as the Colorado River, no longer meet the sea and run dry year after year. In other cases, the water flowing downstream is too salty, too hot, too nutrient-laden from industrial and agricultural uses to support fish and the ecosystems that depend on that freshwater. Groundwater aquifers are pumped more rapidly than they are recharged, leading to race to build deeper and deeper wells to maintain water access before the wells run dry. By squeezing water to its maximum economic efficiency, we are forgetting about the environment and the role that natural ecosystems play in restoring and replenishing water resources that we all depend on.

But there is a fix. In fact, we need many fixes, but a place to start is here: If we included environmental water flows in our economic decisions on water use, we could engender a virtuous cycle that incentivizes conservation and efficient use while securing water for the future. This is already happening in many water- stressed parts of the globe.

  • For instance, The Freshwater Trust partners with irrigators and other water users to develop voluntary, incentive-based water management strategies that balance out-of-stream needs for water like irrigation with the need to keep some water flowing for water quality and habitat protection. They work to restore habitats that help improve water quality in streams, and generate credits that can be traded and purchased by wastewater treatment facilities, power plants and other facilities that need these credits to meet regulatory requirements.
  • Companies who have signed up to the Carbon Disclosure project are starting to report on their water footprint and looking for ways to conserve water along their supply chains.
  • Green bonds are becoming bluer, and financing water conservation efforts, such as transitioning to efficient irrigation technology, that provide a positive return on investment over time, and free up water for nature.
  • Cities such as Indore, India are restoring urban lakes as a way of creating a redundant water supply to improve resilience of the city to drought and longer term climate change, while also creating islands of greenness that not only restore ecosystems, fishing livelihoods, but also urban pride.

While these examples are inspiring, they are few and far between. The Rockefeller Foundation is committed to supporting greater innovation to find more creative, effective, and scalable ways to meet the growing needs for water while maintaining the freshwater ecosystems, on which we all depend. This is one reason why we are a Collaborating Partner to World Water Week. We are optimists who believe we can collectively solve this problem—but we need to do it now, before it is simply too late.

Leave a comment