THE BLOG
01/21/2008 12:51 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

World Economic Forum: A big week for water?

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The annual World Economic Forum kicks off Wednesday in Davos, and already there's a buzz building about this year's emerging focus on the global freshwater crisis. The Forum hosts seven sessions on water, from market mechanisms for pricing to the tragic health consequences of poor sanitation and dirty water. (Note: I'll be reporting all week from Davos.)

In a prelude to the Forum, Klaus Schwab, its chairman, and Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of Nestle, today published a compelling op-ed argument for rapid response and a call for "an unprecedented, high-impact public-private coalition to find ways to manage our future water needs before the crisis hits."

(See the full op-ed below.)

It will be interesting to monitor the outcomes. As my friend and colleague Peter Gleick notes, we can solve many of today's water problems. "We know how," he says. "It's just not clear that we're going to make the commitment."

Will this be a week of commitments? Schwab and his colleagues seem determined to take the discussions to a higher level than before. Stay tuned.

Water sessions at the forum this year include:

Time is Running Out for Water
Nearly one-third of the world's population is expected to be living in regions facing severe water scarcity by 2025. What should be done now to ensure that water scarcity does not become a source of international conflict and human misery?

The True Value of Water
Water demand has more than tripled over the last half century, but its management appears immune to traditional market mechanisms. What is the most effective way to allocate water between industry,

Who is Managing Your Supply of Water
40% of Fortune 1,000 companies agree that the impact of a water shortage would be severe, but only 17% admit to being prepared for such a crisis. How should firms approach their future operations to ensure that they are not affected by water degradation, scarcity, storms or flooding?

Water - Are We Being Bio-Foolish

Securing a Watertight Future
Rapid urbanization, industrialization, changing diets and climate change are aggravating the effects of our unsustainable water use. For many businesses, significant disruptions are already caused by water insecurity. What innovative strategies can help us manage the need for water more effectively?

Death, Disease and Dirty Water
There is a well-established link between dirty water and disease. The effects of climate change and natural resource degradation on local ecosystems are further shaping the patterns of waterborne infectious disease. What is the emerging scientific consensus on the challenges ahead? What technologies and innovations can business provide to help support public health programmes?

Welcom
There will be a special Welcom session for participants to share their talents and creativity in solving the crisis, with a focus on the roles of journalism, design and communications. More on this later. (Disclosure: I've been involved in visioning and organizing this session.)

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A World United on Water
Klaus Schwab and Peter Brabeck-Letmathe | January 21, 2008

THE world is on the verge of a water crisis. As the global economy and the world's population continue to expand, we are becoming a much thirstier planet. It is important to realise just how much water we need to make the various aspects of our economy work.

Every litre of petrol requires up to 2.5litres of water to produce it. On average, crops grown for their bio-energy need at least 1000 litres of water to make one litre of biofuel. It takes about 2700 litres of water to make one cotton T-shirt, up to 4000litres of water to produce 1kg of wheat and up to 16,000 litres to produce 1kg of beef.

The statistics are equally surprising for hundreds of other products that we all take for granted, such as milk, juice, coffee, fruit, pizza, detergents, carpets, paint, electrical appliances, cosmetics and so on. On average, wealthier people consume upwards of 3000 litres of water every day. Even to produce the much more basic things our economy needs, such as cement, steel, chemicals, mining or power generation, requires tonnes of water.

We have seen how a combination of crop switch for biofuels and drought can have an inflationary impact on food. Water is the bigger problem behind this issue. It has the potential for a much more profound impact on consumers and voters. In the breadbasket areas of the world, which help feed our fast-growing urban populations, we are heading for painful trade-offs or even conflict.

Along the Colorado, the Indus, the Murray Darling, the Mekong, the Nile or within the North China Plain, for example, do we use the scarce water for food, for fuel, for people and cities, or for industrial growth? How much of the upstream river can we really dam? How do we figure out ways for every actor in the economy to get the water they need to meet their human, economic and cultural aspirations? And can we ensure that the environment is not wrecked but can flourish in the process?

These are tough questions. And unlike carbon reduction, there is no alternative, no substitute to promote. Nor is there a global solution to negotiate. Turning off your tap in Vancouver or Berlin will not ease the drought in Rajasthan or Australia.

Water is local. Water basins will become the flashpoints. These are the large areas that drain into the world's major rivers and eventually into the sea. They contain millions of people, farmland, forests, cities, industry and coastline, and often straddle multiple political boundaries. The sector that will get the most attention will be the water used by agriculture for food and textile production: 70 per cent of all our freshwater withdrawals are in this sector. Savings made here can help elsewhere in the water basin.

The International Water Management Institute had 500 scientists examine the water we use for agriculture.

Their report took five years to complete. It found that we will not have enough water to supply global demand for food during the next few decades unless urgent and substantial reforms in water and agriculture are undertaken.

Climate change will create this situation more quickly and make it worse. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says that if global average temperature rises by 3C, hundreds of millions of people will be exposed to increased water stress. It provides the wake-up call we all need to start acting on water.

We can see this crisis unfolding during the next few years. A perfect storm is approaching. And all this sits on top of today's morally indefensible situation where 20 per cent of the world's population is without access to improved water supply.

But it is not a catastrophe yet. It lies within our collective grasp to find the solutions. Business can improve its water efficiency, and in many cases it has raised the bar. There are many success stories. But it will take everyone in the water basin working together to change the overall game.

This is what makes the challenge complicated. We are ahead of the curve for now. Addressed smartly, innovatively and with new forms of collaboration between government, business and industry, we believe the coming crisis can be averted.

It is against this backdrop that we will come together at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting to raise the economic and political profile of water: to raise awareness among our business colleagues, our politicians and society at large about adapting to this urgent challenge. How can we start moving to ensure we organise a water-secure world for everyone, including businesses, by 2020?

Our aim is to catalyse at this year's Davos meeting in Switzerland an unprecedented, high-impact public-private coalition to find ways to manage our future water needs before the crisis hits.

Klaus Schwab is founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe is chairman and chief executive of Nestle.