World Water Week: 10 shocking facts about the global water crisis

As research released for World Water Week (27 August - 1 September) warns that more than 100 cities face flood-related risks similar to those currently being felt in Houston, edie dives deep into the data to pull out 10 alarming statistics which underline why businesses must act NOW.

The research released on Tuesday (28 August) by climate disclosure organisation CDP dissects the voluntarily-disclosed water data provided by 569 cities and 1,432 companies.

Produced in partnership with infrastructure firm AECOM and charity Bloomberg Philanthropies,, the analysis notes that 63% of cities see future risks relating to water supply, many of which will be exacerbated by climate change. Almost 85% of cities in Asia and Oceania are concerned about “serious risks”, and these concerns only fall slightly in Africa (80%) and Latin America (75%).

The impacts are currently being felt in the Texan city of Houston, where at least nine people have reportedly died and more than 30,000 have been forced to evacuate their homes in response to severe flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey.

But, if the researchers are correct, the Houston flooding will not be a one-off occurance. And, perhaps more alarmingly, we are not prepared for future floods, with the CDP report noting that just 63% of North American cities are alert to water-related risks, and this number drops to 34% in Europe.

“Our report shows just how crucial water management is becoming to our cities,” said CDP’s head of water Morgan Gillespy. “We are seeing critical shifts in leadership from cities and companies in response to the very real threat of flooding, for example, to local economies.

“Combined with innovation and financial capital, this puts the tipping point for a sustainable economy in reach, and this data shows how important investors are in making this happen. Our vision is to achieve a secure and sustainable water supply by 2030 but to get here we need a sharp U-turn in how we manage our natural resources. Water must be recognised as a critical asset at city and board level, so it’s down to us all to build it into our thinking.” 

If water efficiency is to be fully recognised as a critical aspect of corporate sustainability, it is important that the data being reported tells a story and paints a warning of issues to come. With that in mind, edie has extracted 10 alarming statistics – from the CDP report and elsewhere – that must be considered by businesses large and small if we are to tackle this growing crisis.

1) $9.5bn is ‘urgently needed’ to combat water stress

The showcase figure from the CDP report was the notion that 80 cities are seeking $9.5bn in investment to cover 89 water projects. As cities look to secure water supplies, reduce pollution and fully explore the energy-water nexus, money needs to be unlocked fast.

Latin America, a keep exploiter of hydropower, could account for two-thirds of the needed investment. For example, the city of Quito in Ecuador is seeking $800m to manage its water supply and address contamination across 246km of its rivers and streams. Plans are also in place for the city to build three hydropower stations.

Outside of Latin America, North American cities need $2.7bn in investment, while Asia and Oceania (27.4m), Europe ($22.3m) and Africa ($6.19m) are all calling for investment opportunities.

2) 103 cities are facing ‘serious’ flood risks

The analysis found that the damage caused in Houston is unlikely to be an isolated event. In total, 103 cities are warning that they are at “serious risk” from flooding, including cities like London, Cardiff, Paris and Milan.

Despite suffering from severe drought in recent years, California is warning that sea levels may rise by 140cm before the end of the century, with saltwater intrusion and contaminated freshwater supplies set to arrive hand-in-hand with increased flooding.

The current situation in Houston, the fourth largest US city, has been burdened by the fact that no evacuations were issued by the city. This has seen the number of people trapped in vehicles increased as a result, and the 103 cities at risk from flooding would do well to learn from the mistakes of Houston.

3) 80% of wastewater flows back untreated

Although this stat wasn’t uncovered by the CDP data, it is used in the analysis to highlight a key issue that needs to be resolved. Globally, 80% of wastewater flows back into natural pools of water and the ecosystem untreated, without being reused.

Untreated wastewater is currently used by nearly 1.8 billion people, who use it as a source of drinking water. Because the wastewater is usually contaminated with faeces, this is placing those 1.8bn at risk from contracting cholera, polio and other diseases.

The reuse of wastewater is being championed by companies such as L’Oréal and the UN has suggested that integrating water recycling could generate five-fold economic returns. In fact, banking group ING has found that the circular economy could save 11% of annual global water demand.

4) Businesses have lost $14bn in water damages

The CDP analysis shows that disclosing companies have lost $14bn because of impacts related to water, with many suffering from production losses as a result of flooding or from a reliance on electricity sourced from hydropower.

South African mining company Gold Fields attempted to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels by sourcing from hydropower supplies in Ghana. But when a drought hit the region in 2015, the company was forced to diversify its energy mix again, with new investments costing the company $92m, equivalent to 14.5% of its total capital expenditure in 2015.

A similar cost incurrence was felt by technology giants HP. The company reported a $5m increase in electricity costs due to droughts in Brazil, which had diminished the nation’s hydropower capacity. With 353 cities currently collaborating with businesses on water security, it is hoped these learnings can be translated to assist with regional policy frameworks.

5) London could have a 520-million-litre water deficit by 2050

London’s appeal, coupled with the ongoing urbanisation trend, looks set to add around three million people to the city by 2050. This looks set to strain London’s resources, notably its ability to provide access to clean water.

In 2014, London was ranked as the 15th most water-stressed city in the world. The capital is suffering from ageing infrastructure with half of its water mains pipe system more than 100 years old. In fact, one third of the system is more than 150 years old.

If infrastructure issues aren’t addressed, the increase in population means that London could suffer from a daily water deficit of 520 million litres of water.

6) Rio de Janeiro loses 40% of its water supply annually

Rio de Janeiro is in a unique yet unenvious position, whereby 40% of the potable water supplied by the state company is lost due to infrastructure leakages and what the municipal government describes as “illegal connections”.

The city is also highly dependent on the Guandu river, which provides 80% of the potable water for the metropolitan region. However, there is little in the way of alternatives from sourcing from the river, which is managed by Guandu reservoir, the state of Rio de Janeiro and CEDAE, the state company for water and sewage treatment.

There is only one other water treatment station with enough capacity to substitute for the reservoir in case of a major failure. The reservoir also borders two main transport routes that link Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo. For 4km of these routes the roads and river overlap, which is increasing the likelihood of chemical spills into the water. The road is also outside of municipality borders and therefore city jurisdiction meaning there is little in the way of policy protections or punishments for any spills.

7) Wellington’s renewables transition has been hit hard by droughts

Wellington City is one of the many municipalities that suffer from dual risks when it comes to water scarcity. For example, current summer droughts have left monthly water supplies dwindling to cover just seven days’ worth of water.

But, the city is a prime example of how the water-energy nexus needs more exploration. Depending on rainfall levels, hydropower accounts for between 55% and 65% of New Zealand’s power generation. Droughts are currently impacting the supply of water to Wellington’s designated “hydro lakes”, which in turn limits renewables capacity.

Wellington City Council informed CDP that fossil fuel prices are on the rise in New Zealand, and that the cost of purchasing fossil fuels coupled with the drought will “drastically limit [the city’s] ability to be sustainable”.

8) Philippines is set to suffer from saltwater intrusion

On numerous occasions in 2016, 44 areas in the Philippine cities of Cebu, Talisay and Lapu-Lapu and Liloan suffered from little to no water supply, with some cases lasting 15 hours. The Metropolitan Cebu Water District (MCWD) urged the public to store water during off peak hours to ensure access to water during periods of no supply.

The MCWD relies heavily on groundwater to provide access to drinking water but illegal well digging by the public has increased the country’s exposure to saltwater intrusion. Saltwater intrusion is the movement of saline water into freshwater aquifers, which leads to the contamination of drinking water.

With 49% of the river systems in the country that classified for drinking water, despite not meeting pollution standards, city councils are worried that saltwater intrusion could impact the limited supply of drinking water. In total, 32% of the city of Mandaue is affected by saltwater intrusion, and it could reach MCWD wells by 2030.

9) Karachi is braced for ‘water riots’ as supply moves out of the city

The Pakistani city Karachi is bracing for what it calls “water riots”, as the 20 million people living in the city grow restless over the limited water supply.

Karachi is producing just 50% of the 600 million gallons per day needed by the civilians. With Karachi’s population set to grow by 4.5% each year, almost one million new residents will strain the limited resource further.

Investments projects are underway to alleviate the issue, although the city’s Hub Dam dried up in 2016, leaving Karachi’s only water source more than 120km away in the Indus river. The distance between source and demand has also added to the problems, with water thefts and leakages meaning that around 30% of the city’s water supply is lost before it enters Karachi each year.

10) Uganda’s water treatment costs have increased four-fold

The town of Jinja is the second largest economy in Uganda and is around 50 miles east of the country’s capital Kampala. Household water use in Jinja is the lowest amongst all cities globally at just 28 litres a day, although water demand is extremely high.

There is a heavy demand from businesses in Jinja for water use, as steel makers and breweries start-up in the area. However, around 45% of the water sourced from Lake Victoria is lost to leakage, non-payments and illegal trade. The payments are providing additional challenges for the Jinja Municipal Council, which claims that water treatments costs have increased four-fold, that’s despite most households purifying the water themselves.

Over the last two years a project has been trialled in Jinja and the neighbouring town of Iganga, which has reduced losses to “free” water by 24%. As Medium explains, the trials saved the towns more than $650,000 during the first year of the initiative.

Matt Mace

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