It Starts with a Trickle: Valuing water better can spur sustainable development and climate action

A blue recovery: how can valuing water become the key to achieving Sustainable Development Goals? Banner image: Shutterstock/Sergey Novikov
It Starts with a Trickle: Valuing water better can spur sustainable development and climate action

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Water and climate change are directly linked. We know this by default and from disasters. Our climate crisis is a water crisis. Nine out of ten natural disasters are water related, and since the 1970s weather disasters are striking the world four to five times more often and causing seven times more damage. In the past five decades, such disasters have caused USD 3.6 trillion in economic damage.

The recent floods in my home country of the Netherlands, as well as in Germany and Belgium, are proof that climate change is here and that our systems are not fit for our future of climate extremes. Business as usual is no longer an option. If we are to create a climate resilient future, how we value water must be taken into account.

Water underpins all our social and economic activity. We depend on a reliable, clean supply of drinking water to sustain our health, and the current COVID-19 pandemic has reiterated that: water is our first line of defence. We need water for agriculture, energy production, recreation and manufacturing. Water underpins all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals. Without water, food production stops, cities cease to function, economic activity grinds to a halt and greenery turns to desert.

Yet we are struggling to manage this precious resource so people, crops and the environment all have the water they need. Crucial water supplies, like aquifers and lakes, we either deplete or pollute. More frequent and severe floods and droughts are causing billions of dollars of damage, with far too many lives lost. Nor does it help that water is grossly mismanaged in many areas: wasted in inefficient irrigation systems, poorly allocated or lost in aging, leaky water mains. Water stress is real, relevant and impacts our day-to-day lives and operations. 

The World Economic Forum has repeatedly listed water crises as one of the top global risks. How we manage water is only going to become more important, as projections suggest the world may face a 40% shortfall in its availability by 2030.

Read more on the Forum Network: Profit or Poverty? The democratic imperative for water, sanitation and hygiene for all, by Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

The High Level Panel on Water (HLPW) was founded in 2016 by the United Nations and World Bank. Comprising 11 heads of state and government—under the leadership of Ban Ki-moon, 8th Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Jim Kim, then President of World Bank—the HLPW agreed on the three principles for water action across the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: to understand, value and manage water better.

The three pillars developed by HLPW are foundational for sustainable, inclusive, catalytic and transformative water action. And such action pays off. Every USD 1 invested in safe drinking water in urban areas yields more than USD 3 in saved medical costs and added productivity. For every USD 1 invested in basic sanitation, society earns back USD 2.50. In rural areas, for every USD 1 invested in clean drinking water, USD 7 is gained or saved. Yet we are failing to seize these opportunities even though as we seek to build back better from the pandemic—investing in water across the 2030 agenda is the added-value enabler we so urgently need.

Such action doesn’t have to be difficult, but it does mean we have to change the way we operate. In 2015, I was appointed as the Netherlands’ first special envoy for international water affairs; a first for the Netherlands, but also a first for the world. In this capacity, I have worked to support communities at risk, to inform better decision making, to help raise societal and political awareness, to enable finance and investment opportunities, to build coalitions across stakeholders and to inspire transformative action and innovative approaches in the field of water management. In the course of my work, I have remained grounded in my personal convictions and principles of leaving no one behind. I have met and worked with experts, community leaders, children and politicians alike—all with different backgrounds, needs and interests. Through water and ever-inspiring partnerships, I have managed to ignite conversations, coalitions and processes that lead towards increased awareness and understanding of how valuing water better can empower people and institutions, inspiring novel ideas, identifying opportunities and facilitating projects.

Back in 2018, I initiated the Water as Leverage for Resilient Cities Asia programme to use water to build urban resilience to climate change by working collaboratively with different stakeholders. It started as a competition initially involving three Asian cities—Chennai in India, Khulna in Bangladesh and Semarang in  Indonesia—to design comprehensive projects that address a city’s challenges with water. By using water as an entry point, they aimed to build their resilience to climate change more generally.

The programme aims to tackle three related problems. First, there has traditionally been a lack of funding for the pre-project preparation phase in climate infrastructure investment. This includes research, building capacity, nurturing coalitions, creating innovations and developing designs. Investing more resources in this pre-project phase can lead to the development of better projects, which can then seek bigger amounts of funding. As I often say: “It takes millions to invest billions wisely”. Water as Leverage also seeks to spur new thinking by creating a “pressure cooker” atmosphere. In my TedX talk, I describe the approach in more detail and how it takes inspiration from the Rebuild by Design challenge I developed and led for the Obama Administration for the recovery of the New York region in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

The second problem is that project development is often fragmented. Water as Leverage brings together all stakeholders from the start: development banks and other financiers, vulnerable local communities, governments and project designers. Developing projects with the involvement of all stakeholders—from the early stages all the way towards implementation—can create more opportunities for blended finance, public-private partnerships and market-based solutions. Third, projects are often narrow in scope. Water as Leverage encourages a wider focus, a holistic approach that aggregates values across all the Sustainable Development Goals.

And we can take inspiration from a nature-based approach. In 2019, the Water as Leverage programme took me to Khulna, Bangladesh. Weeks after Cyclone Bulbul had made landfall Abir ul Jabbar, my local partner and the city’s chief planning officer, told me, “The mangroves saved Khulna City!” The mangroves are beloved by local communities for providing livelihoods and sustaining the region. While the Sundarbans suffered damage during the cyclone, the mangroves in fact slowed down wind speeds, sparing inland cities from devastation. Khulna City is a testament to the long-term value of investing in water and nature through listening to all stakeholders.

Learning to value water better has a trickle-down effect across all the Sustainable Development Goals. In order to achieve the 2030 Agenda and deliver on the Paris Climate Agreement, we need collective commitment, programme continuity and consistent ambition. We must not only build back better from the pandemic—we must reinvent ourselves by building back bluer. To do this we must invest in the innovation and collaboration required to ensure we value water better; to see and use water as the springboard for our collective and transformative action. In doing so we can help to build a climate resilient future for everyone. A future that leaves no one behind.

Find more data on water related issues in the OECD Water page: 


Read OECD's Toolkit for Water Policies and Governance Converging Towards the OECD Council Recommendation on Water:

OECD Toolkit for Water Policies and Governance Converging Towards the OECD Council Recommendation on Water

Related Topics

SDGs International Co-operation Green Recovery Tackling COVID-19

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