Due to increasingly common river pressures like overfishing and other threats, the baiji—once known as the Goddess of the Yangtze River—was declared functionally extinct in 2006.
In 2015, at the same time that the Sustainable Development Goals were being developed, the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report named water crises the greatest risk to economies, environments, and people. This was the fourth time water made the list, but the first time it took the top spot, outranking threats such as nuclear weapons and a global disease pandemic. This marked a pivotal moment in a global realization that water is critical not only to people’s daily lives but also to economic and national security.
From an economic standpoint, the figures are clear and overwhelming. Poor sanitation and hygiene and unsafe water in developing countries result in economic losses estimated at $260 billion annually, or 1.5% of their GDP. According to a recent World Bank report, countries that lack a sufficient amount of water could see their GDPs decline by as much as 6% by 2050. The degradation of freshwater ecosystems deprives communities of billions of dollars in food, goods, and services every year—and contributes to the havoc wreaked by devastating floods, prolonged droughts, and other impacts of climate change.
But such losses can be mitigated or avoided with proper watershed-level management. In the private sector, companies are increasingly committing to tackling issues of both water quantity and water quality. They are implementing best management practices throughout their supply chains, and corporate leaders in water stewardship are working toward sustainability targets that make sense in each unique, local context. Such activities make good business sense—they reduce reputational risks (e.g., of being known for overusing or polluting water sources) and material risks (since securing water sources helps ensure ongoing operation and expansion).
In the public sector, some governments are investing in institutions, infrastructure, and information systems across sectors, and linking national planning to local decision-making. Such investments help satisfy often competing environmental, economic, and social needs while preparing for the future. More equitable and transparent regulations and allocations, a mix of natural and hard infrastructure, and increased monitoring and data all help improve climate resiliency and reduce the risk of “economic water shortage,” the term applied when poor management or a lack of investment keeps a population from accessing an adequate water source. Almost one-quarter of the world’s population, some 1.6 billion people, face this condition.
The citizens of Ho Chi Minh City faced such a challenge not long ago. Watercourses were severely polluted, as there was no provision for wastewater collection or treatment, and utility agencies were weak. Undersized drains and inadequate maintenance led to frequent flooding of toxic water. And the future looked even grimmer: Ho Chi Minh is one of 10 cities in the world most likely to be severely affected by climate change, with predictions of floods, droughts, and tropical storms. But beginning in 2001, with investment and guidance from the World Bank, Ho Chi Minh City updated infrastructure, created a centralized wastewater collection system, transformed management, and better secured water sources, directly benefiting more than 1.2 million people. Analyses under thousands of climate change scenarios indicate that the effectiveness of the new drainage system remains resilient against increased rainfall and sea level rise, and nonstructural measures are being explored to reduce flooding and increase resilience to climate change.