WWF Report: Water crisis threatens US$58 trillion in economic value, food security and sustainability

First ever annual estimate of economic value of water and freshwater ecosystems is US$58 trillion- equivalent to 60% of global GDP

  • First ever annual estimate of economic value of water and freshwater ecosystems is US$58 trillion- equivalent to 60% of global GDP
  • Degradation of rivers, lakes, wetlands and aquifers threatens their economic value and their irreplaceable role in sustaining not only our food security, but also human and planetary health
  • On the occasion of World Food Day, WWF is actively calling on businesses to lead the urgent transformation of the food industry by adopting the “Principles for Sustainable Food Systems”

Water, the world's most precious yet undervalued resource, lies at the heart of a mounting global crisis that threatens not only food security, but also human and planetary health, warns a new report, published today by WWF. Released on World Food Day, The High Cost of Cheap Water uncovers a stark reality: the annual economic value of water and freshwater ecosystems is estimated to beUS$58 trillion – equivalent to 60% of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP)*.

The report finds that direct economic benefits, such as water consumption for households, irrigated agriculture and industries, amount to a minimum of US$7.5 trillion annually.

It also estimates that the unseen benefits - which include purifying water, enhancing soil health, storing carbon, and protecting communities from extreme floods and droughts - are seven times higher at around US$50 trillion annually. But the world’s freshwater ecosystems are in a downward spiral, posing an ever growing risk to these economic values.

© Alexander Ivanov-WWF CEE, Nature Park Persina

Since 1970, the world has lost one-third of its remaining wetlands, while freshwater wildlife populations have, on average, dropped by 83%. This disastrous trend has contributed to growing numbers of people facing water shortages and food insecurity, as rivers and lakes have dried up, pollution has increased and food sources, such as freshwater fisheries, have dwindled.

In the Danube basin 80% of the floodplains - essential for flood and drought risk mitigation, groundwater recharge, and water filtration - has been lost along the Danube and tributaries. Today, a mere 16% of the rivers in the Danube Basin retain their natural or near-natural state and less than further 20% are near-natural to slightly altered.  

Unsustainable agricultural practices are among the primary threats to rivers and floodplains. According to the World Bank, agriculture currently accounts for over 70% of the freshwater used by humanity.

Over-extraction for crop irrigation reduces the water available for other uses, such as natural flows that support fisheries, and contributes to water shortages. Intensive agriculture lands occupied the territories of former floodplains, which resulted in reducing the purification, flood and drought risk capacities of the river systems. Meanwhile, excessive fertiliser use creates diffuse pollution affecting surface and groundwaters.  

Threats to river systems are threats to food security. Only by protecting and restoring rivers and their active and former floodplains, keeping water in the landscape with natural water retention measures can we hope to maintain the productivity of agricultural systems into the future. To do that, we must support nature-positive food production; maintain free-flowing rivers; apply sustainable land use practices better adapting to natural conditions and facilitating natural water retention; and adopt diets that reduce demand for products that strain freshwater resources”, says Irene Lucius, Regional Conservation Director at WWF-CEE.

Photo by nrd on Unsplash

“Our current food production practices are not only harming the freshwater ecosystems, but are also identified as the primary contributors to biodiversity loss and climate change. They are causing land erosion and reducing the capacity of landscapes to deal with water scarcity and droughts. Yet the food industry can drive a positive change by embracing leading sustainability practices”, added Lucius.

On the occasion of the World Food Day, the environmental organisation reminds businesses about the WWF Principles for Sustainable Food Systems in Central Europe.

The scientific evidence-based recommendations are designed to empower and support retailers, food processors, and food producers on their sustainability journey. Within the document specific goals are set in seven areas:

Climate: GHG emissions reduced across all scopes in line with the 1.5-degree science-based target.

Food waste: food loss and waste reduced by 50% in all aspects of the supply chain by 2030.

Packaging: 100 % recyclable packaging, no excessive packaging. All materials are sourced sustainably and the use of recycled content is maximised.

Deforestation and Conversion: agricultural commodity supply chains 100% free of deforestation and land conversion.

Agriculture: competitive and sustainable agriculture capable of retaining water in the landscape and promoting biodiversity while avoiding soil degradation and nutrient run-off.

Fishery and Aquaculture: 100% of seafood comes from sustainable sources by 2030. All seafood sources are certified.

Diets: increased proportion of plant-based foods in the average diet.

The document also includes recommended actions and advocacy priorities subordinate to each of the goals. More information about the principles could be found here.

*GDP values are from the latest available annual datasets from 2021.