Invest $1 in tackling water shortage, get $5 return

10 most populous river basins will contribute 25 per cent of world GDP by 2050

A bather in the Ganges river. Photograph: Getty Images

Few resources are more fundamental to health and development than water. Agriculture, energy and industry rely on it, and access to safe, clean water can have an instant and dramatic impact on individuals and communities, helping them to move out of poverty and secure their livelihoods.

Yet, nearly 800 million people are without access to safe water, 2.5 billion people are living without access to basic sanitation and a quarter of the world’s population live in ecosystems that are under threat from water scarcity.

Change requires rapid, collaborative action worldwide and a significant investment – both public and private – but making the case for such investment is a complex matter. Addressing these issues has clear humanitarian and development benefits, and a new report from Frontier Economics, commissioned by HSBC, presents clear evidence and strong rationale of the significant potential of water to help economies grow at a local and global level.

According to new findings from the report, Exploring the links between water and economic growth, securing universal access to clean, safe water and sanitation would call for significant investment, whether from governments or businesses, of some US$725bn – but these investments would yield real returns.

Achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) on water supply and sanitation worldwide would amount to an equivalent of more than $56bn per annum in potential economic gains between now and 2015; and providing universal access to safe water and sanitation would imply potential economic gain of $220bn per annum. Providing universal access in Brazil, India, and China alone would amount to an equivalent of more than $113bn.

Frontier Economics also found that globally the average return on each dollar invested in universal access was just under $5, even after taking maintenance costs into account. In Latin America the figure is $16 while in some African countries, the capital investment would be paid back in only three years. Several countries in Africa and Latin America would stand to gain an average of more than 15 per cent of their annual GDP from achieving universal access.

Alongside water and sanitation, there is also a strong economic argument for an investment in water resource management which includes; efficiently sharing or allocating the available water supply; ensuring water consuming industries are using it as efficiently as possible; protecting water quality and sustaining eco-systems and; managing water infrastructure.

The report reveals the world’s 10 most populous river basins are forecast to contribute 25 per cent of global GDP by 2050 – a sharp rise from a current 10 per cent and a figure greater than the combined future economies of US, Germany and Japan. However, as they stand, seven in 10 of those river basins face significant or severe water scarcity by 2050, meaning the forecasted economic growth in these basins may not materialise without investment in sustainable water management.

These findings make it clear that the future of river basins is critical for global economic growth and the economic rationale for improving access to freshwater and sanitation is strong and clear.

The HSBC Water Programme, a new $100m, five-year partnership with WWF, WaterAid and Earthwatch will tackle water risks in river basins; bring safe water and improved sanitation to over a million people; and raise awareness about the global water challenge - taking one step towards achieving change, delivering benefits to communities in need, and enabling economies to prosper.

Over the next five years, we will continue to share the lessons we learn and the data we gather, in order to encourage others to join us in recognising the value of water, benefiting communities today, and unlocking growth for years to come.

Please follow our progress at www.thewaterhub.org where you can also access the full research findings.

Note: The world’s 10 most populous river basins are: Ganges, Yangtze (Chang Jiang), Indus, Nile, Huang He (Yellow river), Huai He, Niger, Hai, Krishna and the Danube.