Article | 21 Mar, 2020

World Water Day 2020: Investing in water is investing in resilience

With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, handwashing to prevent infection has become a number one priority. Yet, access to clean water for handwashing is still a luxury for many. Over 3 billion people lack basic handwashing facilities, and 1 in 3 people still do not have access to safe drinking water (UNICEF/WHO). On World Water Day 2020, the need to re-focus on achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6 is more urgent than ever: ‘Ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’.

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Photo: ©Shutterstock/Riccardo Mayer

The World Water Development Report, launched each year on 22 March for World Water Day, calls upon States to make more concrete commitments to address the challenge of access and availability to freshwater resources, especially in light of climate change. Climate change directly affects the quality and quantity of freshwater resources. The report highlights that poor water management will worsen the impacts of climate change, not only on water resources, but on society as a whole (see WWDR report).

People need water, as do all systems we rely on: sanitation, healthcare, education, business and industry. The current pandemic is a point in case: no clean water, no handwashing, no protection from infection and further contamination. “Warnings are necessary. But fear will not get the job done”, said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

It is key to keep focus on remedies and solutions. The current Covid19 pandemic is a human tragedy on a scale not seen in the post-war era. Whilst the frantic search for a vaccine is ongoing, some recovery is taking place on another scale. Recent atmospheric research is showing an improvement in air quality thanks to a decrease in CO2 emissions as travel and industrial pollution diminish (BBC). Continuing to reduce our fossil fuel reliance will improve air quality and as a consequence, the air we breathe and our health. Similarly, water in Venice's historic canals is clearing in the absence of boat traffic and fish are re-appearing in the waterways.

Nature is resilient but only if and when we give it a chance. Creating resilience to climate change can be done through supporting the vital ecosystem services we rely on from nature, such as restoring forests to improve air quality, re-planting mangroves to buffer against severe storms and store carbon, and leaving watersheds intact for safe and clean water supply. These nature-based solutions (NbS) are a key response for sustainable climate change adaptation. Recently, the first-ever 'Global Standard for Nature-based Solutions' was adopted by the IUCN Council and will be launched at the next IUCN World Conservation Congress.

New York City Manhattan cityscape       Photo: ©Shutterstock/Manamana

Similarly, investing in NbS, is investing in people’s health and wellbeing. In Greater Manchester, a city with nearly 3 million people, it has been estimated that £150 million ($170million) per year is saved in mental and physical healthcare costs thanks to access to green spaces (See IUCN feature ‘Nature in the City’).

Working with Nature-based Solutions is a win-win for climate adaptation, people’s wellbeing and long-term cost saving (See IUCN feature ‘Nature-based Solutions from Water’). New York for example is one of the few cities in the US that can provide nearly all of its tap water without relying on expensive filtration plants. This is thanks to a healthy forested and intact upstream watershed in the Catskill Mountains. If this were not the case, the city would have to invest more than $10 billion in new water filtration facilities, another $100 million annually for operational costs, and everyone’s water bills would rise significantly to cover the cost (New-York Times).

As governments respond to the Covid19 crisis, and society in turn responds through self-isolation and home-working and schooling, the power of collective action is proving that when we understand the seriousness of a situation, we can respond en-masse and shift the course of events.

The 2006 Stern Report highlighted the need to respond to climate change by investing in adaptation and mitigation. Our collective future lies very much in how we learn from our responses to Covid19, and how we use the connections made to mobilise governments and society to implement climate action, prioritise good water management and invest in Nature-based Solutions for a safer, resilient and healthy future” said James Dalton, Director of the IUCN Global Water Programme.

IUCN contributed to the 2020 World Water Development Report, UN-Water’s flagship report on water and sanitation issues, focusing on a different theme each year. The report is published by UNESCO, on behalf of UN-Water and coordinated by the UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme.


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