The degradation of our freshwater ecosystems is driving a worsening water crisis, which threatens human and planetary health - and an estimated US$58 trillion in annual economic value.
This is the stark conclusion of a new WWF report, the High Cost of Cheap Water, which calls for urgent action to protect and restore our rivers, lakes, wetlands and groundwater aquifers.
Freshwater ecosystems have suffered alarming declines, with one-third of the world's wetlands vanishing since 1970 and an 83% drop in freshwater wildlife populations.
This crisis has contributed to increasing water and food insecurity, and environmental damage, exacerbating global challenges such as nature loss and climate change.
"Water is one of the cornerstones upon which our shared future stands," said Dr. Kirsten Schuijt, WWF International’s Director-General. "Healthy rivers, lakes, and wetlands are essential for water and food security, adapting to climate change, and sustaining biodiversity."
The report indicates that direct economic benefits, such as water for households, agriculture and industry, amount to $7.5 trillion annually.
But this pales in comparison to the unseen benefits, like water purification, carbon storage, and defense against extreme floods and droughts, which are seven times higher at $50 trillion annually.
The rapid degradation of rivers, lakes, wetlands, and groundwater aquifers threatens not only these economic values but also the broader climate and sustainability goals.
Unsustainable water extraction, pollution, and climate change-related impacts pose significant threats.
Two-thirds of the world's largest rivers are no longer free-flowing, and wetlands are disappearing three times faster than forests.
To address this crisis, WWF urges governments, businesses, and financial institutions to invest in sustainable water infrastructure and healthy ecosystems.
Reversing the loss of freshwater ecosystems is crucial, and efforts like the Freshwater Challenge aim to restore huge amounts of degraded rivers and wetlands globally.
"Water and freshwater ecosystems are the foundation of food security, biodiversity, and climate resilience," said Stuart Orr, WWF Global Freshwater Lead.
"Reversing the loss of these ecosystems is key to a more sustainable future for all."