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Chasing Water Security

Climate change is quickly reminding us that modern economies cannot function without water security, in all its varying forms. But, contrary to conventional wisdom, the best way to secure this crucial public good is to relearn past lessons, rather than to pursue radical new ideas.

LONDON – For decades, activists, scientists, and conservationists have warned that freshwater is at risk. Yet improving access to this essential natural resource remains exceedingly difficult. The 2023 United Nations Water Conference in March called for the international community to “act now with the speed and priority commensurate with the urgency of this crisis,” but it remains to be seen whether governments will follow through.

There is good reason to be concerned. More than half a million children under five die every year from preventable waterborne diarrhea, and they belong to a much larger population of over 800 million people who lack access to safe drinking water. Sufficient supplies of potable water and adequate sanitation are privileges benefiting only those living in rich countries, where it is a minor miracle that such services are universally available. Crises like the lead-poisoning scandal in Flint, Michigan, and the contamination of the water supply in Jackson, Mississippi, show just how vulnerable these services are, especially in an age of rising inequality.

Nor is the problem confined to services. Experts have been raising alarms about the state of the underlying resources for a long time. Major rivers – from the Colorado River in the United States to the Huang He in China – have been in trouble for decades, owing to growing demand. And groundwater, the “go-to” for those who run out of options at the surface, is faring even worse. A few years ago, when NASA’s GRACE mission started publishing data tracking the depletion of the world’s underground aquifers, the resulting picture was not pretty. We now know that groundwater has been so depleted that the tilt of Earth’s axis has changed.