WWF Report: The High Cost of Cheap Water

Posted on 16 Oct 2023
Water crisis threatens USD 58 trillion in economic value, food security and sustainability.
  • First ever annual estimate of economic value of water and freshwater ecosystems is USD 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

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 be USD 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 USD 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 USD 50 trillion annually. But the world’s freshwater ecosystems are in a downward spiral, posing an ever growing risk to these economic values. 


Read the full report


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.

Furthermore,  the degradation of rivers, lakes, wetlands, and groundwater aquifers is threatening these values as well as undermining EU action on climate and nature and progress towards the Water Framework Directive and EU Biodiversity Strategy’s goals. Extracting unsustainable amounts of water, harmful subsidies, alterations to river flows, pollution, and climate change-related impacts are endangering freshwater ecosystems. Europe has the most broken river landscape on the planet with literally more than 1 million barriers. 

Combined with poor water management, the destruction of freshwater ecosystems means water risks to businesses and economies are growing. 75% of all bank loans in the euro area, for example, are to companies that are highly dependent on at least one ecosystem service (including surface and groundwater supply, as well as flood mitigation).

To address the global water crisis, WWF calls for governments, businesses and financial institutions to urgently increase investment in sustainable water infrastructure. However, it cautions that outdated thinking, which focuses solely on more built infrastructure and ignores the source of the problem: degraded rivers, lakes, wetlands, and aquifers, will not solve the water crisis, especially in the era of climate disruption.

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.

 Meanwhile businesses must transform their approach to water and scale up collective action to build more resilient river basins.

"Water and freshwater ecosystems are not only fundamental to our economies, they are also the lifeblood of our planet and our future,” said Stuart Orr, WWF Global Freshwater Lead. We need to remember that water doesn’t come from a tap – it comes from nature. Water for all depends on healthy freshwater ecosystems, which are also the foundation of food security, biodiversity hotspots and the best buffer and insurance against intensifying climate impacts. Reversing the loss of freshwater ecosystems will pave the way to a more resilient, nature-positive and sustainable future for all.”

The full High Cost of Cheap Water: The true value of water and freshwater ecosystems to people and planet report can be downloaded here.

Thumbnail image: © Shutterstock / Piyaset / WWF