'Blue revolution' in water management needed for green revolution to succeed: Tharman

Mr Tharman (above) will co-chair a new Global Commission on the Economics of Water. PHOTO: WEF

SINGAPORE - A green revolution is needed to solve the climate crisis but this will not succeed without a "blue revolution" in fundamental changes to the way water is managed globally, said Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Wednesday (May 25).

Speaking at a press conference on a new Global Commission on the Economics of Water, which he will co-chair along with three other global leaders, Mr Tharman added: "We're not going to solve the climate crisis if we don't solve water. We're not going to solve the food crisis or the energy security crisis if you don't solve water. So we have to look at the global commons not in siloed terms… but as a complex set of interacting challenges."

The commission, a two-year initiative, will advance the new science, economics, governance structures, financing approaches and technologies required globally so that everyone has access to clean water and the planet can sustain itself, the minister explained.

Launched during the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, the commission will publish its first report to coincide with the United Nations (UN) 2023 Water Conference to be held in New York in March and co-hosted by Tajikistan and the Netherlands.

This will be the first UN water conference in 46 years, which, given the gravity of the issue, is unfortunate, said Mr Tharman.

"It just hasn't received the attention it deserves for something that's really in the bloodstream of economic life and human life," he noted, adding that the commission aims to mobilise action not just where local problems arise, but globally.

This means ceasing to view water as a matter of delivering aid to countries in need, but co-investing effectively by pooling resources; fostering deep public-private sector collaboration; and realising that equity goes hand-in-hand with self-interest.

"Because if we don't solve those problems, we're all going to be affected," said Mr Tharman.

Commission co-chair Mariana Mazzucato, the founding director of the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at University College London, drew parallels with the global fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We are all only as healthy as our neighbours on our street, in our city, in our region, in our nation and globally. Did we solve that? Did we actually manage to vaccinate everyone in the world? No," said the professor, adding that it was thus important to see and highlight the water issue from a global commons perspective.

Asked by an audience member for examples of technologies to address the water crisis, Professor Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and another commission co-chair, gave the example of drought-proof farming systems.

One win-win solution, he said, was to build more carbon in soils to improve water holding capacity.

The other co-chair of the commission is World Trade Organisation Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who was not at the press conference.

Mr Tharman said that at first glance, the goals of the commission appear costly.

"The world will have to spend about US$300 billion (S$413 billion) per year, in order that low and middle income countries can solve this problem… That sounds like a lot of money," he said.

"But we, today, waste far more than $300 billion. Because the economic cost of what's happening today is far more than $300 billion. The neglect of water costs far more than $300 billion."

Resources have to be mobilised to invest in technologies for a more efficient system of managing water - which will then allow people to have better livelihoods and better quality of life, Mr Tharman added.

He gave the example of women in the developing world, who spend a few hours every day going out to get water.

"If you can make it accessible, imagine what they can do with the time," said Mr Tharman.

"Yes, it will cost something and the world has to pay for it. But we are actually going to gain a lot in economic terms, which means individual lives, communities' lives, will be much better off," he concluded. "Net-net, we're going to be saving money."

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