Greatest Threats To Our World Are Water-related

DAVOS, Switzerland

For the tenth year in a row, water crises as defined by the World Economic Forum (WEF) rank among the top 10 global risks in terms of likelihood and impact, while for the first time in the survey’s 10-year outlook, the top five global risks in terms of likelihood are all environmental (and all of those relate directly or indirectly to water).

The Global Risks Report 2020 presents the major risks the world will be facing in the coming year. It stresses the need for a multistakeholder approach to addressing the world's greatest challenges, and was released ahead of the World Economic Forum’s 50th Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters in January, where the focus was Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World.

The report sounds the alarm on:

  • Extreme weather events with major damage to property, infrastructure and loss of human life
  • Failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation by governments and businesses.
  • Human-made environmental damage and disasters, including environmental crime, such as oil spills, and radioactive contamination.
  • Major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse (terrestrial or marine) with irreversible consequences for the environment, resulting in severely depleted resources for humankind as well as industries.
  • Major natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and geomagnetic storms.

WEF adds that unless stakeholders adapt to “today’s epochal power-shift” and geopolitical turbulence – while still preparing for the future – time will run out to address some of the most pressing economic, environmental and technological challenges. This signals where action by business and policy-makers is most needed.

“The political landscape is polarized, sea levels are rising and climate fires are burning. This is the year when world leaders must work with all sectors of society to repair and reinvigorate our systems of cooperation, not just for short-term benefit but for tackling our deep-rooted risks,” said Borge Brende, President of the World Economic Forum.

A water crisis is defined to be “a significant decline in the available quality and quantity of fresh water, resulting in harmful effects on human health and/or economic activity”. Based on WEF’s survey, respondents were asked to assess the impact of an individual global risk on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 representing low impact and 5 high impact. Likelihood to happen was measured on the same scale, with 1 being low and 5 being high.

In terms of impact, water risks rank fifth; in terms of likelihood to happen, water risks rank eighth; A “global risk” is defined to be “an uncertain event or condition that, if it occurs, can cause significant negative impact for several countries or industries within the next 10 years.”

A 24 January blog published on the website of the Stockholm International Institute (SIWI) observed that "...on closer inspection, 9 of the 10 risks with above average impact and likelihood have clear linkages to water. Apart from the already mentioned, poor water governance too often plays a part in “man-made natural disasters”, “large-scale involuntary migration”, “interstate conflict” and “failure of regional or global governance”, as well as “bio-diversity loss and ecosystem collapse” where populations of freshwater species have declined by an average of 83 per cent over the last fifty years, far more than species on land or in the sea".

WEF's Global Risks Report 2020 is the fifteenth Insight Report and the data reported therein collates 236 responses for Part 1 “The World in 2020” and 190 for Part 2 “Assessment of Global Risks”. The survey included multi-stakeholder community respondents and distinguishes responses from the “Global Shapers Community”, WEF’s network of young people driving dialogue, action and change.

The Global Shapers Community (GSC) perceived the impact of water crises to be about 4.8 out of 5 while the multi-stakeholder community assessed impact at 3.8. In terms of likelihood to happen, the GSC was also higher ate 3.8 versus 3.55.

The report also measures in similar detail economic, environmental, geopolitical and technological risks.