According to the 400-page report, people in many parts of the world enjoy improved access to safe drinking water – 86 per cent of the population in developing regions will have it by 2015. But there are still nearly one billion people without such access, and in cities the numbers are growing. Sanitation infrastructure is not keeping pace with the world's urban population, which will almost double by 2050 to 6.3 billion people. Today, more than 80 per cent of the world's waste water is neither collected nor treated.
At the same time, the report estimates that the world will need 70 per cent more food by the middle of the century, with demand increasing especially for livestock products. A surge in food production will lead to an increase of at least 19 per cent in the water required for agriculture, which already accounts for 70 per cent of freshwater use. The authors warn that these figures could climb even higher if agricultural efficiency does not improve significantly.
Increasingly, underground water sources have been tapped to respond to growing demand. Water extraction has tripled over the past 50 years to become a "silent revolution". In some underground basins, water cannot be replenished and has reached critically low levels. Many countries respond by acquiring fertile land outside their jurisdiction, particularly in Africa. Transnational land acquisition has risen from 15-20 million hectares in 2009 to more than 70 million hectares today. The supply of water is never explicitly addressed in the agreements between the countries concerned.
Climate change will make a bigger impact on water resources in years to come. It alters rainfall patterns, soil humidity, glacier-melt and river-flow and also causes changes to underground water sources. Already, water-related disasters such as floods or droughts are rising in frequency and intensity. The report's authors say that climate change will drastically affect food production in South Asia and Southern Africa between now and 2030. By 2070, water-stress will also be felt in central and southern Europe, affecting up to 44 million people.
The report predicts that these pressures will exacerbate economic disparities between countries, as well as between sectors or regions within countries. Much of the burden, it says, will fall on the poor. Chronic under-financing has left water managers poorly equipped to cope with the adaptations that are required. Unless water becomes a more central consideration in development planning, billions of people, mostly in developing countries, could face reduced livelihoods and life chances. Better governance of water resources is required, including investments in infrastructure from both private and public sectors.
The report is the result of a broad collective teamwork of UN-Water agencies and partners, implemented through its World Water Assessment Programme.