It is predicted that by 2030, there will be a 40% gap between global fresh water supply and demand (1), with the built environment being responsible for around 15% of freshwater use (2).
With nearly half the global population predicted to be denied access to fresh, clean water (3), this humanitarian crisis has now become as urgent as tackling greenhouse gas emissions in the fight against climate change. That’s why the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) has launched an innovative publication, ‘Building a water-resilient future’, outlining the role of the building and construction sector in tackling the global water crisis.
At the UN Climate Summit COP28 in Dubai, UAE, (30 November–12 December 2023), the role of the built environment will be spotlighted in addressing how we can secure an equitable and resilient future for everyone. This work will be showcased at COP28 to demonstrate how the built environment provides one of the greatest opportunities in helping the world transition to zero carbon, meet the Paris Agreement set target of 1.5°C and tackle the water crisis. The paper is aimed at the building and construction sector, and has been developed with extensive collaboration from WorldGBC’s global network and industry experts. It lays out the magnitude of the challenge — and what we can do to change course.
The challenges we face
Fresh water is essential for human existence. As our population continues to grow, combined with the lack of systemic and long-term planning, fresh water has become a globally scarce resource. As a result, the world is now facing a global water crisis that is being exacerbated by climate change, with global water use, storage and distribution contributing to 10% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (4).
Although the surface of the planet is approximately 70% water, less than 1% of the water on Earth is available for human consumption and use (5).
In the past century, population growth, industrialisation, urbanisation and climate change have collectively contributed to a rapidly accelerating global water crisis. Today, nearly four billion people are affected by water scarcity (6), and predictions suggest this number will only rise as global water demand is projected to increase 55% by 2050 (7).
In addition, the global building floor area is expected to double in size by 2060 – meaning an urban area the size of New York City is being built every month. The sector is using water across four scales – materials supply chain, construction, operating buildings and cities – at all stages of the lifecycle.
The solutions we need now
The impact of tackling the water crisis within the built environment has immense opportunities to address the water crisis on a global scale. Supported by exemplary case studies from around the world, this paper highlights four key areas across the built environment, where solutions can, and are, being actioned to tackle this crisis. The infographic below demonstrates the four key stages of the lifecycle where water use can be most effectively addressed:
Cristina Gamboa, CEO, WorldGBC, said: “Everyone should be able to access safe, clean water. It is one of the most fundamental requirements to sustain our lives; yet we find ourselves in a time where this requirement is now in serious jeopardy.
“The World Economic Forum issued a stark warning that global freshwater demand will exceed supply by 40% by 2030. That means that nearly half of the population could be denied the essential right to water, within less than a decade.
“I am proud to launch this industry position paper which outlines the magnitude of this challenge – yet also the great potential of the built environment to address it. This is a sector which contributes to an enormous 15% of freshwater use. So we must take a systems change approach and utilise every resource and opportunity to leverage our influence and expertise to drive real change across global infrastructure.
“That’s exactly what our Green Building Councils, partners and wider network have demonstrated through their pioneering case studies in this paper. Our network will be a unified and powerful voice at COP28 on 30 November–12 December 2023 where we will showcase this paper, and advocate for a built environment that is totally decarbonised, supporting the planet on a course to meeting the 1.5°C target and creating an equitable and resilient future for everyone, everywhere.”
Dr. Dorota Bacal, Sustainability and Innovation Lead — ANZ, ARKANCE (formerly VinZero) said: “Water is the lifeblood of the built environment, but it is also a scarce and precious resource. We have a responsibility to conserve and reuse water as much as possible, not only for the benefit of our environment, but also for the health and well-being of our communities. Preserve, measure and recycle.
Johanne Gallagher, Strategic Delivery Lead — Sustainability, ARKANCE (formerly VinZero) said: “Infrastructure resilience and sustainability are critical in positively shaping the future of water. The technology already exists. There is no lack of resources, the solution lies in competent leadership, efficient stakeholder engagement processes and acting collaboratively in taking a whole systems approach to solutions, in time. We must come together to design, build and solve our infrastructure challenges and ensure that our future means we all have clean and safe water for life.”
Tom Smith, Global Director, Property & Buildings, WSP said: “This excellent report highlights the significance of circularity in effectively handling and optimising water usage in the built environment, ultimately preserving a valuable resource for future generations.”
This paper has been developed by WorldGBC in collaboration with a network of 26 Green Building Councils around the world, as well as our partners Brightworks Sustainability, CBRE, Foster + Partners, WSP, Kingspan and ARKANCE (formerly VinZero), and a network of over 30 individual experts. This position paper is the latest publication from WorldGBC’s global Circularity Accelerator programme, which earlier in 2023 released the ‘Circular Built Environment Playbook’. The Playbook outlines how the building and construction sector can implement circular economy and resource efficiency principles throughout the entire lifecycle of a building.
The document will be launched at the Green Building Council South Africa annual Green Building Convention on 15 –17 November 2023. Now in its 16th year, this conference aims to create a space for sharing innovative solutions and best practices to demonstrate the built environment as a force for change. Find out more here.
Read the full paper here and follow the campaign at #CircularityAccelerator and #ChangeTheCourse.