water drop

Editor’s Note: Ban Ki-moon was the eighth secretary-general of the United Nations. Patrick Verkooijen is CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation, an international environmental organization that partners with the public and private sectors to tackle climate change. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

World leaders need to start planning for a world with a lot less water. The world’s population consumes six times more of this life-sustaining element than our ancestors did 100 years ago, and with population and economic growth, demand continues to rise.

Ban Ki-moon

Furthermore, climate change is playing havoc with the water cycle, disrupting weather systems and rainfall patterns that deliver either too much or too little, and rarely where and when it is needed.

Patrick Verkooijen

That is why the theme of this year’s United Nations World Water Day is valuing water. This is about considering the value of water for our households, food, culture, health, education, economics and the integrity of our natural environment. This is important because there is a growing disconnect between the urgency of our water needs for its multiple uses and the resources available to address them.

This is not due to a lack of capital, expertise or solutions – all three are available in abundance.

It is a failure of national and international foresight, planning and cooperation. With a better understanding of the multidimensional values of water, we will be better able to safeguard this critical resource for everyone’s benefit.

Over the last year, we have seen how water is the connecting thread linking the myriad impacts of our health and climate crises. Billions of people on every continent face a future of increasing water scarcity. And the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the situation.

At the onset of the pandemic, we were urged to wash our hands frequently – an instruction that was difficult to obey in the crowded slums of Rio, Nairobi, Jakarta and Mumbai, and by the 3 billion people globally who lack access to basic hand-washing facilities.

In a world without water, food production stops, cities cease to function, economic activity grinds to a halt and greenery turns to desert. The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risks Report, published in January, ranks risks from water crises higher than either infectious diseases or food crises.

In 2021, we are experiencing all three at once, with Covid-19 claiming over 2.7 million lives worldwide so far and leading to a severe increase in global food insecurity impacting vulnerable households in almost every country.

The World Bank estimates an additional capital investment of $1 trillion will be required over the next 10 years to meet the needs of the 2.2 billion people who still lack access to safe drinking water today, and to treat the 80% of the effluent that currently goes untreated, polluting ecosystems and carrying waterborne diseases.

Against a funding gap of more than $100 billion a year, the Global Center on Adaptation (or GCA), an international environmental organization that partners with the public and private sectors to accelerate action to tackle climate change, just under $10 billion was invested globally in 2018 to improve water and wastewater management.

This means water projects attracted less than 2% of the $546 billion of funding from governments, companies and households available to fight climate change in 2018. In National Climate Plans, which set out how countries intend to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, water projects hardly figure at all.

But there are reasons to be hopeful. First, water projects are beginning to figure prominently in National Adaptation Plans in countries such as China, Ghana and Bangladesh. These plans help communities identify and adapt to the impacts of climate change, such as water scarcity and droughts.

Major institutional investors and banks, through groups such as the Valuing Water Finance Task Force, are also increasingly playing a role in addressing water issues by catalyzing capital markets to value water as a financial risk and influencing companies to take action.

Funding for climate adaptation, however, attracts only a fraction of climate finance. This must change.

Secondly, the fight against Covid-19, which is consuming huge amounts of money, is forcing us to think more strategically about where to invest scarce public resources. In a post-pandemic world, we must use what we are learning about the dynamics of interconnected systems to “build forward better.” GCA, in its “State and Trends in Climate Adaptation Report 2020” identifies climate-smart adaptation initiatives that can help economies recover faster and better from the ravages of the pandemic by delivering triple wins for the economy, health, and climate.

For example, a little-known fact is that wetlands such as the Flow Country in Scotland to the swamp forests in South East Asia can store twice as much carbon as forests, making them the most effective carbon sinks on Earth. Investing in nature-based solutions to restore wetland ecosystems offers multiple benefits in addition to trapping carbon emissions, including flood and drought mitigation, water purification and the protection of biodiversity.

Another opportunity is increasing wastewater treatment. Effluent that is released untreated not only carries diseases and pollutes our environment, but also ferments and releases dangerous greenhouse gases such as methane, which contributes to global warming.

Modern wastewater treatment plants use bacteria to break down organic matter. The byproduct, biogas, can be used for cooking, heating and cooling, and to generate renewable energy in waste-to-energy plants. Investing in wastewater treatment is therefore good for our health, our environment, the economy, and our climate.

One of the reasons why water initiatives are underfunded is that funding for building resilience, cutting carbon emissions and development often exists in silos. Harnessing resources from different finance pools is complicated. This is particularly true when water projects transcend national boundaries, like the current crisis.

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    Even at local and national levels, expertise to put together multi-sectoral project proposals is often lacking.

    That is why GCA is mobilizing support for a Project Preparation Facility (PPF) to invest in building that local and national expertise by bringing innovation and prowess to investments made by multilateral development banks and other public and private financiers. Faster, better and smarter project preparation is needed to make water projects bankable and to drive investments at the speed and scale required.

    Water deserves a greater share of climate and development finance, and a much bigger role in our post-pandemic recoveries.

    It underpins all 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, from fighting hunger and poverty, to building sustainable cities and achieving universal access to clean water and sanitation. There are so many practical ways to invest smartly in our water security. We urgently need to reexamine our priorities and make water the foundation of our health and economic recoveries.