Lack of access to clean drinking water is being exacerbated by climate change. In fact, less than 1% of the world's water is fresh and accessible, according to Melissa Ho, senior vice president of freshwater and food at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
"Although we see water all around the planet, we do not necessarily realize what a precious and finite resource it is," she said.
Ho cited that statistic during "This is Climate: Water," a Washington Post event that featured leaders at the forefront of water crisis initiatives discussing possible solutions to address global water inequities and the role of water in sustainable development.
Ahead of Wednesday’s World Water Day, Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper outlined growing demands on the Colorado River, which drains a watershed from seven Western U.S. states and Mexico.
While lack of access to clean water is especially prevalent in developing nations, more than 2 million Americans are without running water in their homes.
"In the U.S., race is the No. 1 predictor of water access," said DigDeep co-CEO Julie Waechter. "Native American households are 19 times more likely than white households to not have running water, and Black and Latino households are twice as likely."
According to Waechter, when water infrastructure was expanded in the U.S., "many communities of color were not included in that expansion."
"So communities of color that are trying to catch up and get that water infrastructure are having a really hard time finding the funding to do that."
WWF's Ho said women and girls are disproportionately affected by inaccessible water, with millions of girls worldwide routinely walking more than 3 kilometers to fetch water. "Think of what that means for their safety and health and access to schooling and educational opportunities," she added.
Contaminated water in US
Even when water is accessible, in too many instances it is unsafe to drink. Ho said water quality is an issue that should be of "prime concern" given that chemicals, heavy metals, hormones and other potentially toxic substances are routinely present in the U.S. water supply.
The White House on Tuesday announced the first-ever national drinking water standard for six polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also referred to as "forever chemicals." The proposal would enforce limits on the amount of PFAS allowed in drinking water.
Water use in industry
Speakers also addressed the use of water in industry, where it's needed but often wasted.
In the United States, agriculture, including farming and ranching, is the biggest user of water, with 70% of fresh water going to agriculture. World Environment Center CEO Glenn Prickett said that makes farmers "also the most vulnerable to climate impacts in terms of drought or flooding."
With all industries depending on water in some way, limited availability of water worsened by climate change is an economic reality.
"Water scarcity is a key portion of what companies should be thinking about as they think about their water sustainability programs so that they can be more water resilient into the future," said Calvin Emanuel, vice president and general manager of Sustainable Growth Solutions at Ecolab. "It has to be a part of their growth strategy and path forward."
"Some are obvious, like food and beverage manufacturing," Prickett said, "but others may be less obvious but highly valuable to our economy, like fabrication of microchips or data centers for the cloud or chemical manufacturing. All use water, and if they didn't have it, it would be a big impact on their business and their profitability."
Environmental activist Alexia Leclercq closed the session with thoughts on how activists are trying to conserve clean water sources for future generations.
"Not to diminish the complexity of policy and of these solutions that we direly need, but I think that if we shift away from prioritizing profit, I think that gives us a lot of space to imagine what our future could look like and actually put our resources towards finding those solutions and working on those solutions," the Start: Empowerment co-founder said. "It's really limitless what we can create."