World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

Dyed water pours into a pool from a factory

We Have Undervalued Freshwater; We Have Also Undervalued How Much It Matters

  • Date: 16 October 2023
  • Author: Michele Thieme, Deputy Director, Freshwater, WWF

Water is often assumed to be the world’s most abundant resource. While more than 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, only 0.5% of that is fresh and available for use. This finite resource and our freshwater security is in increasing peril. The global population has exploited our rivers, lakes, and aquifers creating a water crisis that is undermining human and planetary health. Now, billions of people lack access to safe water and sanitation, food insecurity is on the rise, and we are losing freshwater species at alarming rates. Why is this happening? Because we have failed to properly value the very water we rely on.

The High Cost of Cheap Water, a new report from the World Wildlife Fund addresses this issue head-on. Not only is water critical for community and species health, but water is also a necessity for industrial production of goods, their transportation, and the production of the energy needed to underpin the entire supply chain. There are no siloes when it comes to freshwater access and usage; every decision we make about water impacts another industry or community. When considering the total footprint that water has across our society, WWF estimates that the total global quantifiable economic use value of water in 2021 is approximately US$58 trillion, equivalent to the combined GDPs of the United States, China, Japan, Germany and India.

The stressors that demonstrate this undervaluing of water can be easily seen locally. In North America, the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo (RGRB) would be the 5th longest river in North America if it still flowed freely from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. However, the river now dries up completely near El Paso, in what is known as the “Forgotten Reach.” The RGRB supplies water for agricultural, industrial and municipal uses for more than 6 million people in the United States and slightly over 10 million people in Mexico. The RGRB is threatened by extensive dam construction, river diversion and aquifer depletion, with agricultural water use playing a disproportionate role in driving water overextraction. But available actions exist. WWF, our partners and many others are working to restore degraded ecosystems in the northern Chihuahuan Desert, while protecting native keystone species such as the silvery minnow, as well as encouraging re-operation of key dams to reshape water flows to reduce depletion. Action is needed to secure a viable future for the river and those that depend on it, including farmers, businesses, Indigenous peoples and local communities.

Stretch of the Rio Grande in Boquillas Canyon, Texas.

In order to protect, restore and sustainably manage healthy freshwater ecosystems, governments, businesses and financial institutions must all take urgent steps to improve water management and invest in reducing water risks. Action is needed to enhance water and food security, to strengthen climate adaptation and mitigation, and to reverse nature loss while driving progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. Perhaps the best immediate opportunity to do so is by joining the Freshwater Challenge, which proposes to be the largest global freshwater restoration initiative in history with aims of restoring 300,000km of degraded rivers and 350 million hectares of degraded wetlands by 2030, and conserving intact freshwater ecosystems. The country-led initiative is championed by Colombia, DRC, Ecuador, Gabon, Kenya, Mexico and Zambia - and has been selected as the Water and Nature Outcome of the upcoming COP28.

As the planet acknowledges World Food Day this week, we must constantly remind ourselves that transforming food systems is key to tackling our water crisis, and similarly, ensuring healthy freshwater ecosystems are central to improved food security. Globally, rivers support one-third of global food production, including freshwater fisheries that feed 200 million people and provide livelihoods for 60 million. In the corporate space, WWF’s new report estimates the value of water to irrigated agriculture at $380 billion alone. We simply cannot provide food and nutrition for the planet without protecting freshwater resources.

If we are to deliver freshwater ecosystem restoration and conservation at the necessary scale required, we must have the active engagement of all sectors – including agriculture, infrastructure, finance, energy, urban planning, conservation, and many more. Only when we all combine our efforts, from high-level policy reforms to local on-the-watershed projects, will rivers and wetlands be revived and conserved. We have a moment to drive that momentum; we cannot let it trickle past.


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