Water touches every aspect of development and it links with nearly every Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). It drives economic growth, supports healthy ecosystems, and is essential and fundamental for life itself.
Approximately 2 billion people around the world do not have safely managed drinking water services, 3.6 billion people do not have safely managed sanitation services, and 2.3 billion lack basic handwashing facilities. Gaps in access to water supply and sanitation, growing populations, more water-intensive patterns of growth, increasing rainfall variability, and pollution are combining in many places to make water one of the greatest risks to economic progress, poverty eradication and sustainable development.
The consequences of such stress are local, national, transboundary, regional, and global in today’s interconnected and rapidly changing world. Consequences will be disproportionately felt by the poorest and most vulnerable.Climate change expresses itself through water. Nine out of ten natural disasters are water-related. Water-related climate risks cascade through food, energy, urban and environmental systems. If we are to achieve climate and development goals, water must be at the core of adaptation strategies.
To guide effective climate change adaptation, activities should reflect the importance of water management for reducing vulnerability and building climate resilience, prioritizing the following actions:
- Expand beyond traditional integrated water resources management (IWRM). Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions also depend on access to reliable water resources, as all mitigation actions need water to succeed.
- Promote investment and solutions that incorporate management of "natural infrastructure" – the ecosystem services provided by healthy watersheds and coasts – and their benefits for climate-resilient development of the food and energy sectors.
- Support actions at scale to build climate resilience by combining watershed management, sustainable infrastructure, and empowerment and learning through adaptive institutions.
Economic growth is a "thirsty business." Water is a vital factor of production, so diminishing water supplies translates into slower growth. Some regions could see their growth rates decline by as much as 6 percent of GDP by 2050 as a result of water-related losses in agriculture, health, income and prosperity. Ensuring a sufficient and constant supply of water under increasing scarcity is essential to achieving global poverty alleviation goals.
- Optimizing the use of water through better planning and incentives will help to improve welfare and increase economic growth. Economic instruments such as water permits and prices, if well implemented and enforced, can improve stewardship of water resources.
- Expanding water supply and availability where and if appropriate is vital. This includes investments in water storage, water reuse and recycling and, where viable, desalinization. These interventions must be accompanied by policies to promote water efficiency and improve water allocation.
- “Water proofing” economies to limit the impact of extremes and uncertainties is also among the top priorities. Better urban planning, expanding crop insurance to protect farmers, and citizen engagement will build resilience and minimize economic impacts of adverse events.
Water is crucial in determining whether the world will achieve the SDGs. The world needs a fundamental shift in how it understands, values and manages water.
- Understanding Water means making evidence-based decisions about water using strengthened water data.
- Valuing Water means recognizing the values that societies accord to water and its uses, taking these into account in political and business decisions including decisions about appropriately pricing water and sanitation services.
- Manage Water means pursuing integrated approaches to water resource management across local, national, and regional levels.
Water is essential for inclusive growth. Water belongs to everyone, yet many are excluded from its benefits. Ensuring that water is equitably and sustainably shared requires an inclusive approach. Women, youth, persons with disabilities, indigenous groups and other underrepresented and marginalized groups need access and voice in the water sector. The factors driving exclusion of these groups are increasing: it is estimated that climate change will force over 140 million people to migrate within their countries by 2050.
In water and sanitation utilities, fewer than one in five workers are women, and in the broader water sector, fewer than one in four engineers or managers are women. Increasing women’s participation at all levels of the water sector benefits women, the community, and organizations.
Around the world, about 500 million women, girls, and other menstruators struggle to access menstrual products or safe, private, hygienic spaces in which to use them. Lack of affordability or accessibility, along with the stigma associated with menstruation in many societies, has wide-ranging negative effects, severely limiting participation in public life.
Water knows no borders. Transboundary cooperation is needed to share this vital resource, which is vital for the economic well-being of entire regions. More than three billion people rely on transboundary river basins for their needs, yet 60 percent of the world’s 310 international river basins lack frameworks to govern disputes. Climate and pollution risks in many transboundary basins, already high, are expected to increase.
The Bank works with clients to build strong institutions, dialogue processes, and information systems that can support transboundary resource management. Given the increasing pressure on common water supply sources, developing cooperative agreements will benefit everyone.
Smart investments in clean water and sanitation prevent needless deaths and transforms lives. Healthier children become healthier adults who contribute more to the economy. This principle is at the core of the World Bank’s Human Capital Project.
Sanitation is critical to health, economic growth and the environment. Investing in sanitation is about safeguarding human health, investing in people and transforming lives. Approximately 446,000 children under 5 years die due to diarrhea linked to inadequate WASH. This amounts to 9% of the 5.8 million deaths of children younger than 5.
Safely managed water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services are also an essential part of preventing and protecting human health during infectious disease outbreaks, including the recent COVID-19 pandemic. According to a WHO/UNICEF technical brief on WASH and waste management for COVID-19: “Frequent and proper hand hygiene is one of the most important measures that can be used to prevent infection with the COVID-19 virus. WASH services should enable more frequent and regular hand hygiene by improving facilities and using proven behavior change techniques.” These efforts also help prevent other deadly infectious diseases, including cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A, and typhoid.
Political commitment and leadership, technological innovations, and breakthroughs in service delivery and financing models are all needed to support governments to deliver on their commitment to SDG 6.2 – achieving access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030.
Learn more about the different business lines of the water sector in these infographics:
Last Updated: Jul 28, 2023