World Food Day 2023: Water crisis threatens $58 trillion in economic value, food security, says WWF report

Degradation of rivers, lakes, wetlands and aquifers threatens their economic value and their irreplaceable role in sustaining not only food security, but also human and planetary health

By Zumbish
Published: Monday 16 October 2023
The report gave the example of the Danube, Europe's second-largest river, the floodplains of which have been massively affected due to human activities. Photo: iStock_

A mounting global water crisis threatens $58 trillion in economic value, food security and sustainability, according a new report.

The report, titled The High Cost of Cheap Water, was released on the occasion of World Food Day October 16 by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The amount — $58 trillion — is the first ever annual estimate of economic value of water and freshwater ecosystems. It is equivalent to 60 per cent of global gross domestic product, the report elaborated.  

The analysis, prepared in collaboration with strategy consulting firm, Dalberg Advisors, noted:

Degradation of rivers, lakes, wetlands and aquifers threatens their economic value and their irreplaceable role in sustaining not only our food security, but also human and planetary health. Water, the world’s most precious yet undervalued resource, (indeed) lies at the heart of a mounting global crisis.

Water and freshwater ecosystems offer several direct and indirect benefits. Direct economic benefits, such as water consumption for households, irrigated agriculture and industries, amount to a minimum of $7.5 trillion annually, according to the report.

At the same time, unseen benefits — purifying water, enhancing soil health, storing carbon, and protecting communities from extreme floods and droughts — are seven times higher at around $50 trillion annually.

“But the world’s freshwater ecosystems are in a downward spiral, posing an ever-growing risk to these economic values,” it stated.

The world has lost a third of its remaining wetlands since 1970, while freshwater wildlife populations have, on average, dropped by 83 per cent. This has contributed to growing numbers of people facing water shortages and food insecurity, with rivers and lakes drying up, increasing pollution and food sources such as freshwater fisheries dwindling. 

The document gave the example of Europe’s Danube basin. Eighty per cent of the floodplains along the Danube and tributaries — essential for flood and drought risk mitigation, groundwater recharge and water filtration — have been lost.

Today, a mere 16 per cent of the rivers in the Danube basin retain their natural or near-natural state and less than 20 per cent are near-natural to slightly altered. The Danube is the second longest river of Europe, after the Volga.

Humans to blame

The report noted that unsustainable agricultural practices were among the primary threats to rivers and floodplains.

Agriculture currently accounts for over 70 per cent of the freshwater used by humanity, according to data from the World Bank. Over-extraction of water for crop irrigation also reduces its availability for other uses, such as natural flows that support fisheries. Agricultural fields now occupy floodplains. This has reduced the purification, flood and drought risk capacities of river systems.

Meanwhile, excessive fertiliser use creates diffuse pollution affecting surface and groundwater.

“Threats to river systems are threats to food security. Only by protecting and restoring rivers and their active and former floodplains, keeping water in the landscape with natural water retention measures can we hope to maintain the productivity of agricultural systems into the future,” Irene Lucius, Regional Conservation Director at WWF-Central and Eastern Europe, said as quoted in the report.

Lucius recommended that countries must support nature-positive food production and maintain free-flowing rivers for agricultural productivity.

The world must also apply sustainable land use practices to facilitate natural water retention and adopt diets that reduce demand for products that strain freshwater.

“Our current food production practices are not only harming freshwater ecosystems, but are also identified as the primary contributors to biodiversity loss and climate change. They are causing land erosion and reducing the capacity of landscapes to deal with water scarcity and droughts. Yet the food industry can drive a positive change by embracing leading sustainability practices,” she added.

The report also made a pitch for healthy water ecosystems. These play a key role in climate adaptation by mitigating extreme floods, building resilience to droughts, protecting against storms and erosion, regulating temperatures and micro-climates, and sustaining deltas, it asserted.

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