Green Investments in Water Sector Could Pay Huge Dividends for Human Health and Food Security
Green Economy Report Outlines Investment Strategies to Help Reduce Water Scarcity
Nairobi/ Stockholm, 25 August 2011 – Investing 0.16 per cent of global GDP in the water sector could reduce water scarcity and halve the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation in less than four years, according to United Nations research released today.
Currently, the failure to invest in water services and to collect, treat and re-use water efficiently, is exacerbating water shortages in many parts of the world and contributing to a situation where global demand for water could outstrip supply within 20 years.
In the water chapter of its ground-breaking Green Economy Report, released during the World Water Week conference in Stockholm, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said investing in sanitation and drinking water, strengthening local water supply systems, conserving ecosystems critical for water supply, and developing more effective policies can help avert the high social and economic costs resulting from inadequate water supplies.
Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, for example, lose an estimated US$9 billion a year, or 2 percent of their combined GDP, due to problems caused by poor sanitation, such as water-borne diseases.
“Improving access to cleaner drinking water and sanitation services is a cornerstone of a more sustainable, resource-efficient society”, said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director.
“The Green Economy Report shows how accelerated investment in water-dependent ecosystems, water infrastructure and water management, coupled with effective policies, can boost water and food security, improve human health and promote economic growth,” added Mr Steiner.
With no improvement in efficiency of water use, water demand is expected to outstrip supply by as much as 40 per cent by 2030.
The Green Economy Report shows that improvements in water productivity, as well as increases in supply (from new dams and desalination plants as well as more recycling) are expected to narrow this gap by about 40 per cent, but the remaining 60 per cent will have to come from infrastructure investment, water policy reform and the development of new technologies.
“Without this investment and policy reform, water supply crises will become increasingly common,” said Professor Mike Young of the University of Adelaide, lead author of the water chapter of the Green Economy Report.
Improving the efficiency and sustainability of water use is also vital if the world’s increasing energy demands are to be met. As countries become wealthier and more populous, industrial demand for water is expected to increase. In China, for example, more than half of the increase in demand for water over the next 25 years is expected to result from a significant expansion in its industrial sector.
Under the green investment scenario outlined in the Green Economy Report, global water use could be kept within sustainable limits and the Millennium Development Goal of reducing by half the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation, could be met by 2015.
With an annual investment of US$198 billion, or 0.16 per cent of global GDP by 2030, water use could be made more efficient, enabling increased and sustainable agricultural, biofuel and industrial production. Under this scenario, the number of people living in water-stressed regions is 4 per cent less than under the business-as-usual scenario, and 7 per cent less by 2050.
The report highlights several case studies where green water investments are producing economic and environmental benefits.
As part of its Five-Year Plan for Green Growth, the Republic of Korea, for example, announced a US$ 17.3 billion investment in its Four Major Rivers Restoration Project in 2009. The five key objectives of the project are to secure water resources against water scarcity, implement flood control measures, improve water quality whilst restoring river-basin ecosystems and develop local regions and cultural and leisure space around major rivers.
Overall, it is expected that the project will create 340,000 jobs and generate an estimated US$ 31.1 billion of positive economic effects as rivers are restored to health.
Well-planned bioenergy a key part of Green Economy
Water use for bioenergy production is the subject of another new report, also released at World Water Week today. The Bioenergy and Water Nexus was jointly produced by UNEP, the Oeko-Institut and the International Energy Agency Task 43.
Renewable, sustainable sources of energy are an essential part of the transition to a low carbon, resource-efficient Green Economy. All forms of energy have, to a greater or lesser extent, an impact on water resources, and the relation between water and bioenergy (renewable energy derived from organic materials such as wood, biomass or agricultural by-products) is particularly complex.
This report finds that bioenergy’s water demands are in large part linked with the cultivation and processing of feedstocks, such as crops, which in turn have important implications for sustainable agriculture, land use and food production.
In a world where more than 70 percent of global freshwater is used for agriculture, the report says bioenergy development needs to be carefully planned to avoid it adding to existing pressures. This planning needs to reflect the increasing and competing needs for the same raw materials for uses such as food, animal fodder and fibre as the world’s population climbs to an expected nine billion by mid-century. In some cases, these considerations may argue against bioenergy development.
However, the report outlines circumstances in which well-planned bioenergy development can improve agricultural practices, including promoting water efficiency and sustainable fertilizer use, and even improve access to water, thanks to water pumping and cleaning powered by bioenergy, and food security in the case of combined food-bioenergy production systems.
The report’s recommendations include
Taking a holistic approach and a long-term perspective – Consider the context to identify the best use for water. There is no “one size fits all” approach. Apply a life-cycle approach, consider inter-relationships with other resource needs, and take into account the whole watershed.
Base decisions on impact assessments to ensure sustainable water management – Analyse bioenergy systems from a comprehensive socio-ecological perspective. Promote sustainable land and water use.
Design and implement effective water-related policies – These should cover feedstock production and energy conversion and monitor competition between sectoral uses of water.
Promote technology development – New technologies may help relieve pressure on water resources, but they will need a due diligence check before deployment.
Conduct further research, fill data gaps, and develop regionalized tools – Support international cooperation in research on bioenergy-related water impacts; address emerging and largely unexplored issues such as the potential and risks of coastal zones/microalgae, land-based microalgae and genetically modified organisms; monitoring needs to be done on a regular basis to fill data gaps and check compliance with regulations and sustainable production; Life Cycle Impact Assessment and water footprints are inadequate without regional tools that assess localized impacts.
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