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Water: Human right or economic good - How does the future of clean water look like for the people on our planet?
Back in January 2021, we addressed these issues in a blog post. The topic was then as it is now: why access to clean water and sanitation has been a human right since 2010. The pressing issues and questions have always revolved around how we will and should manage water in the future. What are the levers? Where can we act as a society or individual? Where do industry and politics need to be held accountable?
Clean water - valuable resource or still a matter of course?
Getting up in the morning, drinking a glass of tap water, making coffee or tea, taking a quick shower, brushing our teeth, doing the laundry, cooking, and so on. We need water for everything. Water is a natural part of our lives. A precious commodity without value?
This may change in the future; the pollution of our waters is increasing, water is becoming increasingly scarce, exacerbated by climate change and a steadily increasing consumption by industry and agriculture.
This is also confirmed by statistical evaluations of the US-American company Lawnstarter Inc., which state that the annual consumption worldwide is more than four trillion m³ of fresh water. Since the beginning of 2023, we have already consumed more than two trillion m³ of fresh water, of which, according to the evaluations, 70% of freshwater withdrawals are used for agricultural purposes, 20% for industrial purposes, and the remaining 10% for domestic use.
Global climate crisis 2.0
Hardly any precipitation, too little water in rivers and lakes, chronically low groundwater levels and temperatures that are far too high everywhere. This is not a description of the situation in Africa or Asia, but an inventory of the current situation in Italy, France, Spain, Bulgaria, Austria, or Germany, for example. A freak of nature or even coincidence?
The Institute of Geodesy at Graz University of Technology (TU Graz) has been evaluating satellite data since 2015, and it shows that Europe has been experiencing a severe drought for years. According to TU Graz, groundwater levels have been consistently low across the entire European continent since 2018 - despite extreme weather situations with heavy rain and flooding that may paint a different picture.
The scientists at TU Graz found that there was a glaring water shortage in Central Europe during the summer months of 2018 and 2019, and that there has been no significant rise in groundwater levels since then. This is evidenced by their data evaluations of corresponding analyses on global groundwater resources and their changes in recent years.
The effects of this prolonged drought were clear for all to see in Europe in the summer of 2022. Dry riverbeds, stagnant water bodies that disappeared, and with them numerous impacts on nature and humans. Not only did numerous aquatic creatures lose their habitat and dry soils caused many problems for agriculture, but it also exacerbated the energy shortage in Europe. Nuclear power plants in France lacked the cooling water to generate enough electricity, and hydroelectric power plants were also unable to fulfill their function without sufficient water.
Water is the basis for life on earth
The unequal distribution of this resource as well as the steadily increasing consumption of the industrialized and emerging countries have led to a worldwide water shortage and this will continue if no rethinking takes place. However, as is so often the case, those most affected are poorer areas of the world, which are also increasingly having to contend with droughts and dry periods due to climate change. Experts therefore predict that in the future, wars and conflicts will no longer be fought over oil reserves, but over increasingly scarce water resources.
To reduce this potential for conflict, the United Nations is also looking at appropriate solutions. According to UN Waters, these scarce water resources can become a conflict especially when transboundary waters, such as important aquifers and lake and river basins, cross national borders. Transboundary waters account for 60 percent of the world's freshwater flows.
153 countries have their national territory in at least one of the 286 transboundary river and lake basins and the 592 transboundary aquifers.
Most countries lack the necessary cooperation and not all transboundary basins are covered by required operating agreements. Conflicts are inevitable here; according to the Statista Research Department, this amounted to a total of 831 conflicts worldwide in the period from 2010 to 2022.
What the WHO is doing
Regular surveys of the overall water and sanitation situation are also conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO). Here are some concrete figures on the global situation released in 2022:
- In 2020, 74% of the world's population (5.8 billion people) used a safe drinking water supply - that is, one that is on-site, available when needed, and free of contamination.
- 89% of the world's population (7.0 billion people) used at least a basic supply. A basic supply is an improved drinking water source that is within a 30-minute round trip
- 772 million people (down 63 million from 2017) do not have even a basic supply of drinking water, including 122 million people who rely on surface water.
- In 2020, 54% of the world's population (4.2 billion people) used safe sanitation.
- Over 1.7 billion people still lack basic sanitation services such as private toilets or latrines.
- Of these, 494 million still defecate in the open, for example in street gutters, behind bushes or in open water.
- In 2020, 45% of household wastewater generated globally was discharged without safe treatment.
- At least 10% of the world's population is believed to consume food irrigated by wastewater.
These figures make it clear that there is still work to be done to achieve the sixth UN Sustainable Development Goal: Water and sanitation for all.
Water - Will it soon be worth more than gold?
The share of private drinking water supply worldwide is still in the single-digit percentage range. However, the increasing severity of the global drinking water shortage has made water an economically interesting commodity for private companies. The market for bottled drinking water is therefore one of the fastest growing industries in the world.
This has already overtaken the market for so-called soft drinks. One might assume that the highest consumption of bottled drinking water is in the world's poorest countries due to inadequate water supplies. Far from it. The highest sales figures are found in the developed or rich industrialized countries, where access to clean drinking water from the tap is readily available at relatively reasonable prices.
The European market accounts for over 50% of the total sales of the bottled water market, primarily UK, Italy, France, and Germany. According to experts, 25% of all bottled drinking water comes from groundwater sources in the poorest countries of the global South, which is subsequently resold to the rich North. However, much of it is also sold in the world's poor countries at much higher prices than tap water costs in industrialized and developed countries. The prices exceed the volume prices for tap water many times over, although it is often only tap water that is further treated. Nevertheless, the consumption of bottled drinking water has become established and normalized in an extremely short time. (Source: Katharina Ranftl, MSc. "Trinkwasser: Wirtschaftsgut oder Menschenrecht - eine wirtschaftsethische Betrachtung").
This short description highlights the urgency and problems that lie in the privatization and commercialization of water as an economic good. With increasing scarcity, the recognition of water as a human right takes on a much greater importance than is the case today.
Wasser 3.0 and the new national water strategy
"Science shows that humans affect the water cycle at all levels," writes the new Global Commission on the Economics of Water in its inaugural report.
With its recently adopted water strategy, the German government aims to ensure a sustainable supply of drinking water for the population. Many details of the German water strategy have not yet been finalized. It initially summarizes what the German government wants to do to ensure that there will continue to be enough water for everyone in Germany in the future. Some of this still has to be negotiated with the federal states, but the basic direction seems clear. In the long term, appropriate actions should be taken to ensure access to high-quality drinking water, ensure responsible use of ground and surface water in other sectors, and support the natural water balance and ecological development of our water bodies.
Where do we stand in this context?
With our responsible research for water without microplastics and micropollutants, aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, we are developing and researching appropriate concepts and solutions that fully comply with the national water strategy. The optimal interaction of application-oriented and responsible research within the Wasser 3.0 strategy, detect | remove | reuse, delivers the greatest possible impact for the environment and society: water is saved, waste is reduced, and water quality is increased. With our educational work, we close knowledge gaps so that we can take more effective action against the pollution of our water with microplastics.
Our goal: “WASser” without microplastics WASoMI. And one question we keep asking ourselves is: How do we get water without microplastics and micropollutants as quickly as possible and worldwide? Our answer to this is holistic and systemic: by identifying as many levers as possible for water without microplastics and micropollutants and setting them in motion in a meaningful way. That is why we work beyond silos - closely interlinked in the areas of research, technology, education, and communication as a non-profit company.