February 7, 2014

From WEF 2014: Water shortage as global risk–now what?

(P. Brabeck-Letmathe with Jin-Yong Cai, CEO of the International Finance Corporation and Luis Moreno, President of the Inter-American Development Bank)

By P. Brabeck-Letmathe, Chairman Nestlé SA and Chairman of 2030 Water Resource Group

Recently, I reported on my personal blog about the 2014 Global Risk Report identifying water insecurity as one of the highest global risks. The report was published by the World Economic Forum a few days before the start of its 2014 Annual Meeting in Davos.

One of the questions that remains is on concrete follow-up on these findings. It is important, but by no means sufficient to just point to a risk, ultimately this must be about change in overall perceptions, understanding and attitudes, and it must be about real action. In that respect, the 2014 WEF Annual Meeting really made a step forward.

2030 WRG - concrete action

As I said, action matters most. I am particularly involved in the 2030 Water Resources Group (2030 WRG), a disruptive public-private partnership that has the goal of bringing freshwater withdrawals in water-stressed watersheds (river basins, underground aquifers, etc.) back into line with sustainable supply (the latter defined as natural renewal minus environmental flows). In Davos, we had the second meeting of the Governing Council of 2030; it was unanimously agreed to extend finance and work for another three years, adding new countries, but also going deeper into the issues of water overuse in the countries that are already part of the ongoing work.

Let me mention here that without the personal support of Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of WEF, the project and partnership 2030 WRG would not have been possible.

Create awareness, keeping water high on the agenda

Davos is also a powerful communication platform; water had high visibility through the prestigious Crystal Award, but also thanks to the media paying more attention than ever to the water issue, with questions that go much deeper than some of the polemics one is still confronted with here and there. Journalists like Jo Cofino from the Guardian are now an essential part of a very constructive exchange towards solutions. 

Learning and exchanging best practice

One of the highlights from this angle of the discussions was the co-founder of water.org, Gary White, and the way his organisation empowers the poor, in a session set up by PepsiCo and hosted by its CEO Indra Nooyi. Gary and his team see the poor as consumers and citizens; most of them have no access to municipal water and, as a consequence, pay a multiple of the price paid per cubic metre charged to the more prosperous. Instead of only complaining about this fact, they receive a credit to organise their water supply themselves, to finance the connections to municipal water, to use the money they spend on water anyway more effectively. Many other good practice case studies came up in our 2030 WRG Davos water discussions on Thursday morning. Everybody came with an open mind, and I left with a conclusion for myself, which Matt Damon, partner of Gary White in water.org, had formulated at the end of the session. I quote: “Being part of today, I am reminded of a quote from C.S. Lewis who said: ‘The next best thing to being wise oneself is to sit in a circle of those who are.’ For me, one of these circles is today here in this room”.

Public policy dialogue

I have always underlined the need for leadership by the authorities–national, regional, and other. As an industry, we can contribute ideas, we can propose tools, and have to join into common efforts. But the strategy in an area as emotional, political, and socially delicate as water, needs to be set by the political leaders. But we can also be part of the public policy dialogue as corporate citizens, warning when we see that silo thinking leads to suboptimal solutions, and listening carefully when outstanding political leaders like Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj explain the importance of water for a whole nation.

Agreeing on overall goals

The public policy dialogue must also take place at global level. If we want to achieve meaningful results, we must agree on overall goals. I had several opportunities to bring back to Davos the outcome of my informal consultation on the water goal to be part of the post-2015 SDGs. One of these was at a press conference, together with Amina Mohammed, lead representative for the UN Secretary General in the post-2015 SDG setting. In closing, let me outline the four targets that, in my view and based on the consultation I led, should be part of one single water goal:

  1. Universal access to safe (‘improved’) drinking water by 2025 at the latest, with a parallel focus on quality, moving from the improved water perspective to truly safe drinking water. Together with my second point below, this results directly from the principle that water and acceptable sanitation are a human right—not just as a declaration, but as a concrete commitment in the first place by governments.
  2. Accelerate the provision of access to improved sanitation to at least 120 million additional people per year, aiming for universal access before 2050. Data on actual improvements achieved show that this is realistically possible; with further strengthened efforts political leaders might aim for even more ambitious targets.
  3. Adequate treatment of all municipal and industrial wastewater prior to discharge by 2030. Best practice initiatives to reduce groundwater pollution by agricultural production (traditional, organic, etc.).
  4. Finally, yet fundamentally, we must also address the water overdraft. Without changes in the way we are using water today, we risk shortfalls of up to 30% of global cereal production due to water scarcity by 2030. And, needless to say, the growing overdraft of freshwater also puts the supply of water for all other uses at risk, including those mentioned above. My proposed target, therefore, is that freshwater withdrawals (for all uses) must be brought into line with sustainable supply (natural renewal minus environmental flows; in individual watersheds and/or countries) by 2030. This brings me back to my first section—we need concrete action to start now; we cannot wait for the UN to approve the goals and targets next year.

I have come back from Davos encouraged, but also aware that much still needs to be done.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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