Uta Wehn: No water – no jobs!

21 March 2016

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Uta Wehn

The connection between water and jobs is not necessarily an obvious one. This year’s World Water Development Report (WWDR 2016) is dedicated to examining this relationship. It analyses how essential water is – not ‘just’ for life as is so often and rightfully claimed - but for jobs and therefore for economic growth, now and in the future. According to the Report, 78% of the jobs constituting the global workforce are dependent on water. "To hold the dialogue about the water and jobs nexus in the broader arena of science, technology and innovation policies, decision makers will have to step outside their comfort zones," Uta Wehn says, in this article published on the occasion of the 2016 World Water Day (22 March).

Water serves not only to ensure that the workforce is healthy and productive. Jobs in water utilities and water authorities are clearly related to and dependent on water: managing water resources; building, operating and maintaining water infrastructure; and providing services in water supply, sanitation and wastewater management.

More broadly though, almost 80% of the global active workforce (i.e. 2.5 billion people) are likely to be highly or moderately dependent on water.  Admittedly, other sectors can argue to be of a similar cross-cutting nature, such as telecoms or logistics, for example. Nevertheless, with about half of the global active workforce employed in highly water-dependent sectors, water is a resource to be reckoned with.  

Water is therefore a crucial input for many sectors, with irrigated agriculture as the largest water consumer, using 70% of freshwater withdrawals worldwide. Examples of other sectors that are heavily dependent on large quantities of water as a key resource, or for providing their main function, are energy, tourism and industries such as food, pharmaceutical and textiles. Moderately water-dependent sectors do not require access to significant quantities of water but it is still a necessary or even indispensable input in part(s) of their value chain, for example for construction, recreation and manufacturing/transformation industries such as wood/rubber, plastic and metal.  Water therefore enables both direct and indirect employment opportunities.

Challenges and opportunities

‘Water scarcity is likely to limit opportunities for economic growth and the creation of decent jobs in the upcoming years and decades.’

Lack of water affects around 40% of the global population. This is expected to worsen over the coming decades: climate change, coupled with pollution of water sources, is expected to aggravate the threats to water availability.

Over the period 2011-2050, the global population is expected to increase by 33% from (from 7 to 9.3 billion people), food demand to increase by 60%, and the population living in urban areas will double (from 3.6 billion to 6.3 billion).

While these population trends translate into employment opportunities, particularly in the agriculture and energy sectors, they also imply increased demand for water. With jobs in water-dependent sectors affected by insufficient and erratic water supply or poor water quality, this can intensify competition among water using sectors and/or regions with implications for employment, livelihoods, geopolitical and food security, and migration. The WWDR 2016 points out that the links between water - jobs - living standards - local economy are particularly fragile in many developing countries which are local so-called ‘hot spots of water-related stress’.

‘Innovation contributes to the continuous improvement of water management’

Water-related technologies, processes and practices are continuously changing, be it due to an increased focus on sustainable development, a shift towards a circular and green economy or ‘simply’ as part of innovation processes. Technological and non-technological innovations are changing the direct management of water resources, the provision of water services and water-dependent sectors. For example, intelligent monitoring networks are changing the way the water distribution system is being managed. They enable better anticipation of demand and supply as well as enhanced management of water storage and distribution. Other ICT-based innovations improve forecasting systems for floods and droughts, asset management, water reuse and energy saving. These changes are enhancing the efficiency, effectiveness and performance of water production and water use, but with varying diffusion rates in different regions of the world.

‘Changing size and shape of capacity gaps’

Next to infrastructure, technological innovation and institutional reform, human resources are key to designing, constructing, operating and maintaining water and sanitation services and for managing water resources. Yet the report identifies concerning and growing capacity gaps. In addition, innovation-induced changes will also have employment implications, potentially changing the size and shape of capacity gaps: affecting the number of jobs, the types and mix of skills and competencies that are required as well as working conditions.

Where do we go from here?

The report’s analysis of the water and jobs nexus in different regions of the world (Africa, Arab Region, Asia and the Pacific, Europe and North America) suggests that the situation is not only diverse but requires urgent attention in all regions. The WWDR 2016 indicates several ways forward for national-level decision makers and water resources managers, along the following lines:

‘Failure to invest in water management not only represents missed opportunities, but may also impede economic growth and job creation’

First and foremost, the report appeals to decision makers to avoid the cost of inaction. As already established by the WWDR 2012, given the uncertainties regarding future bio-physical, climatic, economic and socio-political conditions, quantifying the potential increases in water demand and resulting water deficits is considered extremely difficult. But: not preparing is preparing to fail.

Sustainable water management is to play a key role in ensuring improved living standards, flourishing local economies and the creation of more decent jobs and greater social inclusion. This entails ensuring the sustainability of water resources and ecosystems; developing, operating and maintaining water infrastructure; planning, fostering and managing human resource capacity; and increasing the knowledge base and innovation. These efforts should feed into and inform one other.

  • Ensuring the sustainability of water resources and ecosystems: investing time and efforts to manage ecosystems and water resources strategically so that they can withstand the additional stress from population growth, urbanisation and changes in consumption patterns.
  • Developing, operating and maintaining water infrastructure: investing in and supporting the development, operation and maintenance of water infrastructure to provide greater, more reliable and safe access to water supply and sanitation services. This will result in a healthy and productive workforce and will capitalise on the growth and employment-creating opportunities of water-dependent sectors.
  • Planning, fostering and managing human resource capacity: include water-focused human resources capacity needs in national employment policies to fill quantitative and qualitative capacity gaps, ensuring a sufficient and adequately-trained workforce. This also entails devising incentives for attracting and retaining public sector staff and strengthening and innovating training and learning activities.
  • Increasing the knowledge base and innovation: improve the collection and analysis of relevant data for sound decision making, strengthen change and innovation management and advance R&D efforts, especially related to ICTs. Capture the opportunities for job creation and efficiency improvements in the field of water innovation, including water source diversification through the use of non-conventional sources.

‘The sustainable management of water for economic growth and employment is not only a question of resource availability and money, but also a matter of sound policy frameworks and governance.’

Salient legal and policy frameworks need to be considered when policy makers address the ‘water and jobs’ nexus. At the global level, elements of the water and jobs nexus are already linked to relevant frameworks, with the established human right to water and the human right to decent work. Also, both water and jobs are clearly anchored in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at goal and target levels and deemed central for the realisation of the SDGs.

Now national actions and interactions are required. The proposed measures and policy responses transcend traditional policy domains and demand shared vision and policy coherence between various policy domains (water, energy, food, environment, economic and development). This is inherently and notoriously difficult to attain. Still, acknowledging these inter-connectedness and interrelations is a first step towards tackling them. Now decision makers and other stakeholders will have to step outside their comfort zones - either out of or into the water domain – to hold the dialogue about the water and jobs nexus in the broader arena of science, technology and innovation policies and come up with specific and coherent strategies and plans.

Uta Wehn, from Germany, is Associate Professor in Water Innovation Studies in the Integrated Water Systems and Governance Department at UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education