The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Risks Report identifies weather events, water scarcity, food security, failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, biodiversity loss and eco-system collapse as among the top global challenges.
More than two billion people do not have access to treated water and a further billion regularly drink polluted water, says Gonzalo Delacamara, academic director of the Water Economics Forum.
Naturally water-scarce, the Mediterranean region faces many challenges that hinder sustainable development, even in a country like Spain which receives a fair amount of annual rainfall.
“About 70 per cent of Spain is prone to desertification and 20 per cent of its land is already arid. Climate change is creating more challenges,” says Delacamara. “Many of the problems related to water have nothing to do with whether it rains a lot or not. What matters is how we use this water.”
Delacamara was speaking during the Mediterranean Water and Journalism Forum (AMWAJ) held last week at the headquarters of the Union for the Mediterranean (UFM) in Barcelona, Spain.
The gathering of policymakers, researchers and journalists discussed ways to advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, with a focus on water, energy and environmental sustainability.
“Adapting to climate change and fighting its ramifications has become a generational challenge,” he said. It demands collective action that involves civil society and the private and public sectors.
Miguel Garcia-Herraiz, deputy secretary-general for water and environment at the Union for the Meditteranean (UFM), stressed that environmental degradation and water scarcity are not only environmental issues but impact on the whole of society.
In 2017 the UFM adopted a new roadmap, focussing its efforts on regional integration, human development and sustainable development.
“We work particularly on the nexus between water, energy, food security and ecosystems,” said Garcia-Herraiz. “It is a very important area which requires cooperation between governments, locally and internationally.”
Huge efforts are spent providing water to growing cities in countries like Egypt and Lebanon, and to improve access to water, says Garcia-Herraiz.
Work is hampered, however, by limited funding for research and innovation. Octavi Quintana, director of Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area (PRIMA), reported that PRIMA had received more than 1,000 proposals for research and innovation projects but can afford to fund just 40 projects. PRIMA, he added, received just $51 million in 2018 to cover all its research and innovation activities.
UFM has 43 member states. It works on projects in the water and energy fields, with a primary focus on problems generated by growing population demands, the depletion of natural resources and water scarcity.
One important role the UFM plays, says Garcia-Herraiz, is to provide technical assistance to banks so they can advise their customers about business models for investment in mid- to large-sized water and energy projects.
Garcia-Herraiz said that though water is a priority for every government there is a deficit gap when it comes to funding.
He argued that governments, institutions and international organisations need to take a much more holistic approach to integrated resource management in the face of climate change and the stresses place on urban environments by changing demographics and growing populations.
“Cities are growing exponentially in the Mediterranean region and this adds to the financial burden of water management,” he said.
Creating awareness of the business opportunities involved in investing in water is urgently needed.
Development banks like the European Investment Bank (EIB) tend to take more risks in financing such projects than commercial banks, said Thomas Van Gilst, head of the EIB’s water division.
Even so the bank has to assess the projects it finances, ensuring they have benefit potential and are able to recover costs.
The EIB will finance up to 50 per cent of the cost of any project, with the remainder made up by contributions from other financial institutions or national authorities.
“Realising the environmental benefits of investing in projects, and the protection they afford depleting natural resources is essential,” Van Gilst said.
Van Gilst believes water tariffs should be revisited as a means of generating money to invest in the sector, though it is difficult, he says, to convince some people that the provision of water for drinking or agriculture is a service for which they should pay.
There needs to be more awareness that what is actually being paid for is the treatment and delivery if the water.
There is resistance to increasing the tariffs for water used in manufacturing. Investors see it as an added burden and authorities worry it may lead to manufacturers moving elsewhere.
“I think that collectively as a society, and on a global level, we should agree a tariff on industries for using water, though it will be a difficult thing to do,” said Van Gilst.
Delacamara agrees that the mechanism of water consumption tariffs must be made more progressive, so those who use water inefficiently pay more, with the additional resources going to water sanitation and other water management projects.
“People need to be aware of the consequences of their water consumption.”
Konstantina Toli, senior programme officer at the Global Water Partnership Mediterranean, said water, employment and migration should be considered a nexus.
Migration in the region is induced by water scarcity, climate variability and change as well as socio-economic stress and political unrest.
Sixty per cent of the population in the Mediterranean region has little to no access to treated drinkable water, and 70 per cent of the region’s GDP is exposed to water stress: this, combined with the fact that the average unemployment rate among young people in the region was 40 per cent in 2015, drives many to migrate in search of jobs, said Toli.
Water-related employment and entrepreneurship is on the rise but we need to contribute to higher employment and entrepreneurship rates given how many opportunities in the field exist, she said.
Although access to finance limits entrepreneurs recent technological advances mean many projects are relatively low budget.
Start-ups showcased several low cost waste recycling and water filtering projects during the forum, capable of creating many new job opportunities while simultaneously protecting the environment.
These projects are part of the business opportunities in the water sector that help create jobs for many people, in addition to the positive impact on the environment.
We need to enhance circular economies and develop new governance methods for water and energy. It is essential to change the way we manage water. Efficient water management is central to sustainable development, said Delacamara.
Clean water and sanitation is goal number six of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal which all 191 UN member states have agreed to try and implement by 2030.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Promoting better resource management