Whenever private companies benefit from public subsidies, guarantees, loans, bailouts and procurements, governments could attach conditionalities to contracts to maximize public benefits. For instance, the 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act in the United States promoted equitable access to water by creating the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to subsidize companies that provide water for disadvantaged communities. Similarly, the 2022 US CHIPS and Science Act contractually obliges funding recipients to maximize efficiency with regard to water, waste and electricity.

New forms of public–private arrangements, including permits, property rights and procurements, should be developed to counteract the rent-seeking and value-extractive behaviour that has plagued some national water sectors. In England, for example, since the privatization of the water industry in 1989, £72 billion (US$88 billion) has been paid out to shareholders as dividends, while outdated infrastructure has left the water system riddled with leaks and sewage discharges.

Some preliminary work to reshape the economics of water has begun: two of us (M.M. and J.R.) are leaders on the independent Global Commission on the Economics of Water (watercommission.org), which was launched in May 2022 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The group is assessing impacts on the global hydrological cycle from climate and environmental change, as well as country interdependencies and the international cooperation needed to treat water as a global common good. A call to action (see go.nature.com/3zxnw54) and a first review report (see go.nature.com/3twxsok) were released the week before the UN 2023 Water Conference.

Start locally and build globally

Effective management of water as a global common good starts locally. National governments, cities and regions need to define goal-driven ‘missions’ that add up globally. For example, nations might pledge to ensure that the supply of green and blue water in the hydrological cycle inside their borders remains within a manageable range, as defined by safe planetary limits or boundaries9. Targets and strategies must be designed to initiate coordination, finance and innovations10.

For example, the European Union’s Water Framework Directive has, since 2000, required the EU member states to develop river-basin management plans jointly with the public. Obligations are reviewed every six years, and non-compliance brings legal sanctions. Although progress has been made, more-coordinated efforts and monitoring would help to realize the directive’s full potential11.

All sectors must be involved. Food production, for example, accounts for around 75% of freshwater consumption globally, with India the largest consumer. India might, for instance, focus on ensuring continuity of food supply without imposing pressures on national use of green and blue water. Production and consumption processes should be redesigned to minimize water waste and maximize water sharing.

In Australia, the national science agency, CSIRO, is working to reduce the economic impacts of the country’s droughts by 30% this decade, by making climate data accessible to farmers to enable them to make informed water-use decisions. Other countries, such as Kenya, are exploring ‘green water credits’ that reward upstream water management beneficial to downstream areas12.

Cooperation and exchange of knowledge will be crucial to join up local and global strategies. As with greenhouse-gas accounting and the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN and other bodies will need to develop mechanisms for overseeing the planet’s water resources; discussions on how to do that must start this week in New York City. None of what we set out here will be easy. But the future of Earth’s bloodstream is at stake.

Source: Nature.com