Turning water risk into an opportunity for growth requires a revolution in planning and practice

At the ongoing World Water Forum, there is an opportunity to address water challenges and deliver a sustainable water future, says International Water Association director Ger Bergkamp.

Whether unprecedented drought in California or devastating floods in Chile, concerns over water – too little or too much – have continued to hit the news in 2015. Floods and droughts are no longer isolated or extreme events, they are the new normal. Growing population, increasing demand for energy and food, rapid urbanisation and changing land use, create water challenges at the local level all over the globe. Challenges that demand urgent and decisive action to secure future water sustainability.

We need to move from managing risk to grasping opportunities that can be truly transformational in creating the blue-green revolution. To do so, requires bold action from governments and policy makers, business and community leaders, scholars and practitioners. It also demands leadership from the water sector to deliver solutions that inspire policy and practice to scale up successful innovations and pilot projects.

2015 can be a turning point for water. In September, the Sustainable Development Goals will be agreed in New York, including a specific goal on water security and safety. In December governments aim to reach a global agreement on halting climate change, the impacts of which are felt strongly through water. And, this week, the world’s only global meeting of government ministers responsible for water is taking place at the 7th World Water Forum in Korea. 

The World Water Forum, which this year is taking place in Korea from April 12 to 17, is the only occasion when government ministers from around the world come together to address water challenges and solutions. They will seek ways to translate generally agreed upon principles into national policies and regulation, plans and actions, results and progress. They will discuss how to intensify joint efforts to advance water-related cooperation on a global scale, and provide a roadmap to get the right commitment and actions on water in place.

The World Water Forum is an opportunity to define the commonly accepted “must haves” of water management. Yet it is unlikely to go beyond reaching a consensus that fails to address the truly transformational change needed. Perhaps the biggest opportunity it presents is for individual countries to step-up and commit to a more progressive agenda. It will only be through those that go beyond the lowest common denominator that the Ministerial Conference can inspire and drive change.

2015 can be a turning point for water. In September, the Sustainable Development Goals will be agreed in New York, including a specific goal on water security and safety. In December governments aim to reach a global agreement on halting climate change, the impacts of which are felt strongly through water.

In this way, the World Water Forum can be a catalyst for progress. Yet, individual governments have to go further, have to become much more ambitious in their approach to solving the water crisis. Water professionals working in their own countries can drive policy by innovating in practice and technology. We can combine this with institutional reforms and transform water management through fit-for-purpose regulation that stimulates a transition to sustainability and resilience.

The way we manage water over the coming decades will have a profound impact on future societies, economies, peace and sustainability. I believe we need to move from seeing water as a “risk” to focus on fostering responsibility, capturing opportunities, and promoting new solutions to water challenges. At the heart of this water revolution are the five “Rs” of new water management: reduce, re-use, recover, recycle and replenish.

Reducing loss of water and increasing water efficiency can reduce costs and lower water stress. Re-using industrial and domestic water can be truly transformative for entire regions. Recovering water, energy, nutrients and other materials from wastewater is becoming more economically viable, recycling precious nutrients forms the basis of the cyclical green economy. Finally, the future of water management is already here in the form of successful pilots and large-scale applications to replenish the environment through restoring watersheds, lakes and groundwater reserves.

To take one example of how this could work in practice. Making water safe to drink, moving it around and treating wastewater, takes a lot of energy. Water is responsible for between 3 and 8 percent of all global carbon emissions, roughly similar to the aviation industry. We have a very real opportunity to eliminate the carbon footprint of the urban water cycle by 2030. Increasing efficiency and producing energy from the water cycle, could allow water utilities to become net energy producers and achieve carbon neutrality.

As the World Water Forum is likely to illustrate, we cannot just hope that politicians will lead the way. Water professionals have to take their responsibilities to a new level. They have to be the drivers of the change we know is possible, and by building partnerships with industry, academia and civil society to make politicians more ambitious and governments to be better able to deliver.

The water risk facing the world has never been greater. Yet, there is a huge opportunity to address water challenges and deliver a sustainable water future. In the process, water solutions will play a key role in addressing climate change, economic development, population growth, urbanisation, and food and energy availability. We must act together, act responsibly and swiftly, there is little time to lose.

Ger Bergkamp is executive director of the International Water Association, the global network of water professionals working to deliver equitable and sustainable water. This post was originally published on Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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