March 22 is World Water Day. For most folks reading this post, potable water is a short walk to the closest faucet. But for one in nine people around the world, accessing clean water is a much more arduous task.
The absence of this most basic necessity has far-reaching consequences. From water-borne diseases that claim millions of lives annually to the billions of dollars in lost productivity and economic opportunity, the global water crisis bares tremendous costs for nations around the world and is crippling long-term growth and development.
The impact on public health is astounding. Every year, 3.4 million people die from water, sanitation and hygiene related causes — more than all forms of violence, including war, combined. Bacteria in dirty water often leads to diarrhea, a condition that claims the lives of a child every 21 seconds — 4,100 every single day. Diarrhea causes more youth deaths than malaria, AIDS, and measles combined. And patients suffering from water-related illnesses fill half of the hospital beds around the world.
In addition to the human toll, the global water crisis is devastating the economic growth and productivity of developing nations. Every day, an estimated 200 million hours are spent looking for water globally, with over 40 billion hours spent annually in Africa alone. UNESCO estimates that the overall economic loss to Africa is $28 billion, or 5% of GDP. And young people — the youth that nations depend on for future leadership — miss school as they search for clean water or recover from water-related illnesses. An estimated 443 million school days are lost annually due to illnesses caused by dirty water.
The current challenges presented by the world water crisis are grave. Unfortunately, research suggests that the issue will only intensify in the coming years. Experts from major international institutions have outlined several concerns related to water scarcity in the coming years. The OECD estimates that nearly half of the world’s population will live under severe water stress by 2030. Around that same year, the U.S. Intelligence Community estimated in a 2012 report that mankind’s global water requirements will exceed current sustainable supplies by 40%. And the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that by mid-century, one in five developing countries will face water shortages.
Population and economic growth, coupled with a changing climate and lack of basic infrastructure will continue to escalate the divide between supply and demand of this critical resource. The resulting shortage will threaten the stability and security of many nations, leading to potentially far more costly interventions in the future.
There is no easy answer for this global problem, but leaders from nations rich and poor must make water security a top priority and grant it much more attention than it currently receives. The issue’s far-reaching impact — from public health to education to national security to economic development — demands that it be considered and addressed not just annually on March 22, and not just at water-related summits, but at high-level meetings throughout the year and in capitals around the world.
There are several great non-profit organizations working to drive awareness around the crisis and provide immediate relief, but only governments and international organizations can provide the infrastructure and policies needed to tackle the crisis. It’s important that young leaders work together to elevate the issue on the global agenda, and demand that leaders in the public and private sectors work together to develop promising solutions. If we don’t act now, our generation will bare the greatest burden of the world water crisis in the coming decades.
Aaron Kinnari is the founder of The Future Forum, an organization committed to educating and engaging young leaders on important global issues. The Future Forum has produced a set of materials related to the world water crisis, available at www.TheFutureForum.org/water.