Report finds a growing awareness of the global water crisis people with longer term perspective see water shortage as highest global risk

By Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

16 January 2014 See comments (1)

The ninth edition of the Global Risk Report (pdf document), published this morning, Thursday 16 January 2014, by the World Economic Forum (WEF) identified water as one of the highest global risks. The report also found that women, together with people under 30 years of age, are most likely to recognise this.

The report is produced every year by a highly qualified, interdisciplinary group of professionals, who evaluate globally relevant economic, geopolitical, environmental, societal and technological risks.

Once again, as in the two preceding years, the risk of a water crises came out among the top three in this comprehensive analysis.

The new report cites the eight Global Risks of Highest Concern in 2014 (pdf document) as:

  1. Fiscal crises in key economies
  2. Structurally high unemployment/underemployment
  3. Water crises
  4. Severe income disparity
  5. Failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation
  6. Greater incidence of extreme weather events (e.g. floods, storms, fires)
  7. Global governance failure
  8. Food crises

Risks concerning water are defined as “a significant decline in the quality and quantity of fresh water, combined with increased competition among resource-intensive systems, such as food and energy production,” i.e., a risk of systemic nature and with broad potential societal impact. Increasing water risks are “a result of mismanagement and increased competition for already scarce water resources from economic activity and population growth.”

table
A water crisis is considered the highest risk by women

The report shows how the most important risks are interconnected. Food is one the dimensions here, and in earlier posts I have expressed my concern about the possible impact of water shortage on food production in the coming years, i.e., the risk of up to 30% shortfalls in global cereal production due to shortage in freshwater by 2030. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute - who has previously contributed to this blog – wrote a very informative piece for the Guardian last year on how falling water tables will threaten food supply.

Not surprisingly, and with other factors involved (climate policies subsidising the use of food for fuel, slowdown in the growth of per-hectare productivity, etc.), the risk of a food crisis is also ranked very highly among the threats to our future.

There is another interesting fact. The report looked at how different groups among the experts responded. There is a surprisingly high gap between degree of concern about the water risk between men and women, probably the biggest gap when comparing with other risks evaluated.

table
A water crisis is considered the highest risk by under-30s

The resulting picture: for women, water shortage is considered the risk with the by far highest potential impact on society and individual livelihoods (see chart above; dark red for women, blue for men). WEF provides an interesting explanation: “Some argue that this reflects a tendency for women to think more of the long term than men, and to have a more network-focused rather than linear approach to problem-solving.”

This hypothesis is confirmed by the fact that the same ranking – where water crises are perceived as being by far the highest risk – emerges when you only look at people below 30 years of age (in yellow in the chart below). These people are not only concerned by long-term risks - they are the ones who will actually be affected by them.

Congratulations to the authors of this report!

I am very much looking forward to the discussion about these fascinating results presented in the WEF 2014 Global Risk Report, during and after the event in Davos, and here on my blog.

  1. Aaron @ None

    17 Jan 2014 - 05:45 (GMT)

    How do you see small sensory devices such as the Arduino or Raspberry Pi (a.k.a. the Internet of Things) making this kind issue more manageable? It seems to me as if many of the issues you raise about water are technologically limited and potentially too resource intensive to be financially viable--at least 7 years ago when these small electronics didn't exist.

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