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New UN report paints a grim picture for the future of the world's water


Water, water everywhere, but more than 1 in 4 people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water. Nearly half the world, 46%, lacks safely managed sanitation. And water shortages are projected to get worse. Well, these are among the headlines from a new United Nations report on water.

We're going to talk them through with Richard Connor, who's editor-in-chief of the report and also hopefully get to some bright spots and success stories. Richard Connor, welcome. Thanks for your time.

RICHARD CONNOR: Well, thanks for having me.

KELLY: All right. Let me kick us off with one more number. Your report finds 2 to 3 billion people have water shortages for at least a month every year. And the report also expects that to increase. Why? What's driving this?

CONNOR: Essentially, it's two things - climate change and population growth, more intense storms, more intense droughts and much less stability.

KELLY: So there is water. It's just not where human population needs it. Is that what's going on here?

CONNOR: Yeah, well, it's not necessarily falling where it should. But the question is not just where, it's when. And so recurring droughts, if you have enough water storage, you can easily go through a few months. If the drought occurs during the growing season, that creates serious, serious problems for food security and also the livelihoods of the farmers that are growing the food. So what's left to do about it? It's to learn how to use, manage the water that we have when we have it.

Population growth is not really happening that much in the developed world. It's all in developing and emerging economies. And that population growth itself is all - pretty much all happening in cities. That means that where the problems are concentrated - and that opens possibilities to solutions. If it was wide ranging and all over the place, it would be a lot more difficult to tackle.

KELLY: Your report does highlight some examples of partnerships or cooperation that work.

CONNOR: Yeah, definitely. OK. So you've got these rapidly increasing cities. Right now, one-third of the world's cities that rely on surface water are in competition with the agricultural areas surrounding. We call them peri-urban areas. And it turns out that that's where the food to feed the cities grow. So obviously, it's in everybody's best interest to find ways to negotiate or to balance the needs of both the rural and the urban communities.

One way and the most important way is to increase the efficiency of water use in the agriculture. Now, if the municipality pays farmers to allow them to afford to increase their efficiency, the municipalities win in two ways. One, it allows them to have more water available; and second, that the water that they do have available is cleaner because agricultural runoff usually has pesticides or herbicides, you know? And so...

KELLY: Sure, fertilizer, yeah.

CONNOR: Exactly - and fertilizers. So that if you don't have that in the runoff, as it comes to the cities, the cities save - can save significant amounts in water treatment costs. So they're not - the cities aren't paying any more. It's just that they're paying for upstream land management, agriculture and also protecting natural habitat, natural ecosystems that lead to cleaner water.

KELLY: So is that a big part of the message you're trying to get across here, that solutions can be a win-win if we just reframe our thinking about things a little bit?

CONNOR: Absolutely. It's not one versus the other. It's pretty much everyone together. And I hate to sound like some "Kumbaya," it's like we're all together in this, but the fact is, we are. And then you add the nature preservation in the mix. If you protect your wetlands, they also clean water. They remove pollutants. So at the end, again, if you've protected your upstreams properly, you have more and cleaner water coming into the cities. So, yeah, everybody wins.

KELLY: Richard Connor is lead author of the new U.N. water report, speaking to us from U.N. headquarters in New York. Mr. Connor, thanks.

CONNOR: Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.