SINGAPORE – Water scarcity and vulnerability is a global crisis of lives and livelihoods that is crying out for attention and must be addressed by countries coming together to devise practical, concrete solutions, said Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Wednesday (May 25).
“We are all affected by what happens in every part of the world. That’s why the climate crisis and the water crisis are about the global commons,” he told a panel at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. “What each of us does contributes to the problem somewhere else in the world.”
The live-stream session was moderated by Ms Karen Harris, managing director of consulting firm Bain’s macro trends group, and took place before the launch of a Global Commission on the Economics of Water, which will be co-chaired by Mr Tharman.
Described as a two-year initiative to transform how the world values and manages water for the rest of the 21st century, it also comes ahead of a United Nations (UN) 2023 Water Conference to be held in New York in March and co-hosted by Tajikistan and the Netherlands.
Mr Tharman on Wednesday said it was remarkable that most people were so used to getting water when needed that they were unaware of a large part of humanity still lacking access to safe drinking water.
Noting that the water crisis was intertwined with the climate crisis, he said: “Climate, water, food and energy are becoming more and more insecure at the same time. And they’re feeding into each other. If we keep over-extracting water, if we keep polluting water; it affects the wetlands, affects natural carbon sinks. It makes it even more difficult to address the climate crisis. So we’re in a vicious cycle now.”
Mr Tharman stressed that this was a global issue where what happens in one part of the world ends up in another part of the world.
To that end, being selfless and being self-interested is the same thing when it comes to the global commons, he noted, remarking that “what goes around, comes around”.
The key, said Mr Tharman, is to locate the intersection of solutions to address both the climate and water crises.
“A large part of the water consumed in North America… goes towards producing grain for cattle, for livestock,” he said. “So the same questions we ask ourselves on climate – how much beef should we be consuming – are the same questions that we have to ask for water… We’ve got to think of them together and find solutions that basically solve both of them together.”
Fellow panellist and climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti, founder of the Green Generation Initiative, made similar points throughout the session on the global reach of the water crisis, noting: “Just because these impacts are not happening where you are, it doesn’t mean that they are not happening at all.”
A prolonged, ongoing drought is devastating countries across the Horn of Africa and fuelling extreme hunger for almost three million people in her country Kenya and over 20 million in neighbouring countries, said Ms Wathuti.
She also spoke about the importance of delivery and accountability, with pledges by business and governments to offset the loss of freshwater ecosystems often “made but not met”.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte agreed, saying it was integral that next year’s UN Water Conference be “action-oriented” and not just about “posturing and nice talks”.
“We need the involvement of big business,” he said. “Collectively these companies have so much knowledge but also the logistical power to get this done together with NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and governments.”