We have to think about water in a new way. Climate change demands it.

Amanda Leland

Published Aug. 25, 2022

By Amanda Leland, EDF's executive director, and Darío Soto-Abril, executive secretary and CEO of Global Water Partnership

Today, almost 800 million people don’t have access to clean water, and 4 billion people experience severe water scarcity for at least one month each year. Wherever we look, both too little and too much water is wreaking havoc across the world, and in some regions, pitting economic needs against human ones.

Europe is just the latest region to be hit by record-setting drought, with more than 60% of land in the European Union now under drought warnings or more severe alerts. Drought in the Horn of Africa is putting 22 million people at risk of starvation. And in the western U.S., farmers are taking hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland out of production because there isn’t enough water.

Major rivers like the Loire and Rhone in France, the Po in Italy, the Colorado in the U.S. and Mexico, and the Yangtze in China have shrunk to historically low levels, not only impacting agriculture but also energy production and in some cases transport.

With climate change expected to increase the frequency, magnitude and impact of droughts, a complete overhaul of our approach to water consumption and management is needed if we are to avoid being trapped in continuous cycles of acute water stress.

When world leaders gather in Stockholm next week for World Water Week, this challenge will be foremost in their minds. Water experts and policy makers know that our highly interdependent water and food systems have yet to adapt to this new reality of more extreme swings in weather.

But tinkering at the margins will not rise to the scale of the challenge. We need nothing short of a global water transition.

What is a global water transition?

A global water transition means bringing water supply and demand into balance in response to the now inherent variability and unpredictability in water supplies. It means proactively managing water in a flexible way that sustains this balance for communities, agriculture and ecosystems over the long term.

So where should we start? The problem is global, but the solutions will be applied locally. We must ensure that our policies and regulations are fit for purpose in a world blighted by water stress, and that water governance is guided by science and data.

Water policy must be informed by the needs of local community members on the front lines of water scarcity, as well as farmers and ranchers whose irrigated agriculture now claims nearly 70% of all freshwater for human use worldwide.

Advancing collaborative solutions

The Global Water Partnership is working in many parts of the world to bring together leaders from across government, civil society and the commercial sector to solve water problems. With a global network of 3,000 partner organizations, GWP is working to support the advancement of water security in 60 countries and 20 transboundary basins with a combined population of over 4 billion people.

At the same time, Environmental Defense Fund is working with a wide range of partners to help agricultural communities in drought-stricken parts of the U.S. transition to more sustainable forms of water management.

Consider community, regional, and state-level initiatives for developing tools and policies that support sustainable groundwater management — like California’s newly launched Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program, leveraging $50 million of state funding.

The program is focused on repurposing irrigated land to provide new, less water-intensive benefits to communities and wildlife, while compensating landowners for embracing new approaches that reduce water use. This broadly supported program should be a model for other communities facing rapidly dwindling water resources.

As a megadrought batters much of the western U.S., a satellite-based data platform called OpenET was created to help water managers and farmers more easily and closely track water consumption by crops, enabling the development of innovative new management strategies and conservation programs. Since OpenET launched last year, leaders in other countries are asking how this tool can serve their arid areas.

Supporting a new approach to water

We must recognize the interconnected nature of our challenges. It is impossible to protect our land and communities without fundamentally rethinking our approach to water and backing it up with new commitments enabled by alignment of financial resources, research and applications at the community and global levels.

This year’s droughts, heat waves and extreme weather are a bleak reminder of the challenges we face as a global community with globally connected food systems. The times demand nothing short of a comprehensive rethinking of how we use our quickly dwindling water resources — while we still have an opening to act.

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