World Water Day, water will save the world

Bridging infrastructure gaps in the water sector would take $6.7 trillion in investment by 2030

As the UN’s World Water Day approaches on March 22, people all over the world are wondering about the future of water resources.

The many uses of this life-giving resource—water for drinking, water for waste cycle management, water for sanitation, water used to produce energy, and so forth—increasingly call for a shared commitment.  Most urgently, there is a need for modern infrastructures that will help with waste reduction, efficient resource management, effective service for all communities, and energy production with minimal environmental pollution.

The latest United Nations World Report on water resource development underscores this. Based on OECD data, $6.7 trillion need to be invested in the water sector by 2030 and $22.6 trillion by 2050.

Strategic investments will be key for meeting the increased demand for drinking water (an outgrowth of urbanization around the world), for improving wastewater management (particularly in cities), for mitigating flood risk, and for ensuring steady water supply in case of droughts. According to United Nations calculations, about 4 billion people today live with severe water scarcity for at least one month of the year.

To overcome this, we can begin by taking a hard look at the state of affairs around the planet, as reported for World Water Day 2021.

The future of water resources: a world in search of water

Understanding why water is becoming scarcer globally is a matter of looking at the numbers. In the last 100 years, global water consumption has increased sixfold and continues to grow at an average annual rate of 1%. This increase is linked mainly to population growth, the push for economic development, and changing consumption patterns.

According to the United Nations report, the world could face a 40% water availability shortfall in 2030.

And this isn’t just happening above ground; water is becoming scarcer below the surface, too. Between 1960 and 2000, the rate of groundwater reduction doubled. Lake Mead, the largest artificial lake in the United States, with its reservoir that supplies Las Vegas, is a prime example of this. To counter Lake Mead’s decrease in water, Webuild Group built a new water intake tunnel that can reach greater depths; using a complex system of underground viaducts, it brings water to the busy entertainment mecca.

As the Lake Mead example illustrates, infrastructures can be strategic in how they efficiently manage water resources, avoid waste, and meet the needs of the population. This will help stave off the projected worst-case scenario, which indicates that in 2050 some 52% of the world’s population could live in water-strained regions.

Efficent water infrastructure: more water and less pollution

The benefits of efficient water infrastructure are twofold: first, it ensures steady water supply; second, it helps reduce air pollution and thereby offers a model for sustainable development.

This is the case in the “Clean Rivers Project,” a river wastewater management megaproject in Washington DC, where Webuild is working to reduce pollution in the Anacostia River. By the project’s expected end date in 2025, there will be a 96 percent reduction in the volume of wastewater overflow into the Anacostia, Rock Creek and Potomac rivers (from 4.8 billion to 185 million liters).

The same is true of the Riachuelo River in Buenos Aires. Widely considered the most polluted waterway in Latin America, it is now the focus of an ambitious rehabilitation project, carried out using sophisticated technologies.

Efficient water networks lead to a healthier environment. The UN estimates that water and wastewater management systems emit between 3% and 7% of the world’s greenhouse gases. Indeed, untreated wastewater is a significant source of pollution, yet in developing countries, over 80% of wastewater is neither collected nor treated.

Agriculture, energy and industry

Water is a cornerstone of human life. It helps the hundreds of millions of people residing in the world’s major cities to coexist peacefully.

But water is also a key driver of the economy, namely the agriculture, industry, and energy sectors. 

According to the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) of the United Nations, 93 developing countries will have to invest $960 billion by 2050 to improve irrigation systems. Similarly, the IEA (International Energy Agency) estimates that global energy demand will grow by 25% in the coming years. Demand for the water sector is also set to grow by 25% by 2050. 

In light of this statistical reality, it is essential to consider water a key factor in the path toward sustainable development, particularly where energy is concerned. Hydroelectric power, produced by using water resources through dams and pumping plants, is currently the world’s leading source of sustainable energy. Although 71% of the world’s renewable energy already comes from hydroelectric power, it needs further investment to meet the challenges of the future.

These challenges will include meeting the needs of 840 million people who today do not have access to electricity. A new model of sustainable energy production could be the solution to closing the energy gap through a green transition.