UN Secretary-General António Guterres has sounded the alarm in the face of a global water crisis. The world is in great trouble: “We have broken the water cycle, destroyed ecosystems and contaminated groundwater,” Guterres said at the start of the UN Water Conference on Wednesday in New York. Almost three out of four natural disasters were water-related.

The UN water conference runs until Friday. It is the first major UN meeting since 1977 to deal exclusively with the topic of water. An interim balance at the halfway point of the so-called International Water Action Decade from 2018 to 2028 will be drawn by Friday. A particular focus is on the extent to which internationally agreed targets on the subject of drinking water and sanitary facilities can be achieved. This includes the UN Sustainable Development Goal of providing everyone with access to clean water by 2030.

Drinking water shortages continue to increase

At the start, dozens of ministers and some heads of state and government have announced their attendance. No major agreement will be negotiated at the conference, but a non-binding action paper is to be voted on. Federal Environment Minister Steffi Lemke (Greens) should also speak on Wednesday.

According to a UN study published shortly before the conference, the global shortage of drinking water will continue to increase. According to the UNESCO World Water Report, this is a consequence of increasing environmental problems and economic difficulties in connection with increased freshwater pollution.

“Depending on the season, water will become scarce as a result of climate change, both where it is abundant today – such as Central Africa, East Asia and parts of South America – and worsened where it is already scarce – such as the Middle East and in the Sahel.” On an annual average, 10 percent of the world’s population lived in countries at high or critical risk of water scarcity problems.

In his speech, Guterres emphasized that new ways of treating and conserving the “elixir of life for mankind” are needed, as well as a global information system to forecast water requirements in real time. An early warning system against dangerous climate or weather events is also needed. “This is more than a conference on water. It is a conference about today’s world from the perspective of its most important resource,” said Guterres. This conference must represent a quantum leap in the fight against water scarcity.

Two billion people without access to clean water

The United Nations study called the progress made so far in achieving the UN sustainability goal of access to water for all people and other projects insufficient. “In order to achieve some goals, an implementation speed that is at least four times faster is now required,” it says. Two billion people worldwide – about one in four – have no access to clean water.

According to the report, global water consumption is projected to increase by about 1 percent annually through 2050, similar to the past 40 years. In poorer countries, there is a risk primarily due to poor water quality, while in industrialized countries consumption by agriculture is problematic. Due to the climate crisis, certain regions are increasingly exposed to extreme and prolonged droughts, which have serious consequences for flora and fauna.

Environmental organizations such as the WWF describe the conference as “overdue”. Nowhere is species extinction progressing as rapidly as in rivers and wetlands.