John Thomas, Fellow, The Rockefeller Foundation
As the world’s leaders and approximately 30,000 delegates descend on Rio in June, many urgent and important issues will be clamoring for the attention of decision makers. Yet underlying nearly every priority area to be discussed in Rio is one fundamental element: water. Water intersects with almost all aspects of our work at The Rockefeller Foundation: from health, agriculture and the environment, to urban planning, infrastructure and green jobs, and even impact investing. Water is critical to the health and well-being of millions, for the production of food, for sustaining the services that our environment provides, as a component in the products and processes of nearly every manufacturer, and as a risk filter that investors use to evaluate their investments.
It is estimated that by 2020, two thirds of the world’s population will live in areas affected by severe water stress. Demand is projected to grow to 40% above currently accessible supplies, and climate change promises to throw a wrench into these dynamics by altering patterns of rainfall and seasonal flooding that communities have been accustomed to for generations. This not only has drastic consequences for rural farmers in Kenya who depend on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihoods, or slum dwellers in Southeast Asia or Latin America whose homes sit on lands susceptible to flooding or mudslides, but for each one of us living in the relative comfort of a developed country, where, for now, water is cheap, accessible and plentiful. Case in point: barring drastic action, the city of Las Vegas will run out of water in less than a decade, and the Colorado River is so overdrawn that it now no longer reaches the sea. Slowly, we’re beginning to see the effects of our irresponsible development: the amount paid for water is not just rising faster than inflation, but faster than the amount paid to any other utility service – gas, electricity or telephone. The time of cheap water seems to be coming to an end.
Those who will be most impacted by the changing dynamics of the water cycle are people in poor communities – those who have no other option but to pay exorbitant rates for water (five to fifteen times the rate of those connected to a water main in India, for example) or who are not informed about a flood or tsunami due to the lack of effective early warning systems. While their voices are many, the poor almost never have a seat at the negotiation table despite the direct impact the negotiations will have on their lives. Ensuring sustainable management of our water resources now and into the future is not just a sustainable development imperative, but an equity imperative as well. Not only can we expect to see more headlines about the human costs of increasing water scarcity, or how entire communities can get washed away in the night, but even on our streets, in our homes, and certainly on our utility bills we will increasingly see the effects of water insecure world.
But there is reason to hope. As we learned earlier this year, the Millennium Development Goal for water has been met three years ahead of schedule, demonstrating that coordinated international action can lead to significant improvements in the quality of life for billions. While the MDGs are not perfect and challenges remain, leaders at Rio must acknowledge the critical importance of working together and building partnerships to make progress towards sustainable, equitable management of our water resources across a diverse array of sectors, stakeholders, geographies and times. We cannot afford another international conference with no actionable outcome. Time—and water—is running out.