By Jan Spin
Water is the great connector, flowing across continents and cultures; from fjords to fisheries, glaciers to geysers. Freshwater ecosystems are the very fabric of life on Earth. Wetlands, rivers, lakes, streams and springs link humanity to life-sustaining nourishment and economic opportunity. But this precious connection is fleeting.
Freshwater ecosystems are in peril. The consequences for humanity are felt around the globe through water scarcity, food insecurity, dwindling fisheries, pollution, drought and biodiversity loss. One-third of the world’s wetlands have been lost in a short 50 years, along with a staggering 83% of freshwater wildlife populations.
The climate crisis is a water crisis.
Against this sobering backdrop, it is heartening to see water elevated on the agenda at COP28. The United Nations’ annual climate conference, which began last week in Dubai, has designated conserving and restoring freshwater ecosystems a top priority, with a full day set aside to explore climate action across water, food and agriculture, and another day focusing on nature, land use and oceans.
This is hopeful, but COP28 must deliver more than hope. There is no solution to the climate crisis without addressing our global water crisis. We still have time to change course, but we need tangible outcomes.
Access to clean water is a fundamental human right, yet too many freshwater sources are polluted and rendered unsafe. One consequence is a significant increase in harmful algal blooms. Left untreated, toxic blooms can choke aquatic ecosystems, threaten human health, damage local economies and livelihoods, and ultimately create aquatic dead zones where life cannot survive.
Progress toward the global goal of ensuring water and sanitation for all by 2030 is alarmingly off-track. The U.N. says we need to work six times faster on improving drinking water and five times faster on sanitation. If the current pace continues, 2 billion people will still be without access to safe drinking water in 2030 and 3 billion won’t have safe sanitation. Let that sink in.
The Global Commission on the Economics of Water warns of a possible 40% shortfall in freshwater supply by 2030. The Commission argues for valuing and managing water as a “common good.”
What humanity values, it protects.
The decision-makers of the world have failed to value and protect freshwater resources. Failed to ensure equitable access to water. Failed to grasp the dire urgency of this looming catastrophe. COP28 presents a real opportunity to make progress. We must seize the moment. We must build on the water-related initiatives produced at COP27.
Our freshwater ecosystems need a wholesale, fundamental change in approach: significant investment in clean water technologies, sustainable infrastructure and nature-based climate solutions must be tapped. Policymakers must factor freshwater into development plans and embrace solutions that maximize the efficient use of this precious resource.
The Freshwater Challenge, launched at the U.N. 2023 Water Conference, is an ambitious step forward. At COP28, more than 30 additional countries will be signing pledges aimed at restoring almost 200,000 miles of rivers and more than 860 million acres of inland wetlands by 2030.
Pledges and targets are meaningful only if concrete action is taken to achieve them.
Will COP28 prove to be a watershed moment or a washout? Will leaders rise to the challenge or walk away with genuinely good intentions that fade in the new year? Will it be politics or complacency or — pick an excuse — that makes this COP yet another footnote of failure in global resolve?
We are standing at the precipice of a climate catastrophe. Water is our most precious and imperiled natural resource. There is no solution to the climate crisis without addressing our global water crisis. Let us marshal our collective resolve and dive in.