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Water on the Agenda at Davos

20/01/2016 16:06 GMT | Updated 20/01/2017 10:12 GMT

As the world's decision-makers congregate in Davos this week, one of the most pressing issues will be also one of the most fundamental: Water.

For the first time ever, the World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report has cited an environmental risk - failing to mitigate and adapt to climate change -- as the risk with the single greatest potential impact this year. Water crises rank third for this year, and of highest concern for the next decade.

There is a growing understanding that climate change will leave no one unscathed - and water is how we will feel it most.

The two are inseparable. Climate change manifests as water change - too much water leading to flooding; not enough, as in drought; at the wrong time, as in extreme weather events; and in water quality, worsening pollution and salinity.

Livelihoods, and lives, at risk

From WaterAid's work in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Rim and Latin America, we have seen what happens to the world's poorest communities when they are subject to regular flooding, drought, delayed rainy seasons and torrential, unseasonal rains. Livelihoods are wiped out; villages are destroyed; diseases take hold. When access to life's essentials - water, food, a roof over your head - was already fragile, recovery from disaster is so much more difficult.

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Women in Bangladesh collect filtered, safe water from a water point in an area where groundwater is saline and contaminated. WaterAid/Habibul Haque

Just six weeks ago world leaders committed to the Paris climate change agreement, pledging to work toward keeping carbon emissions down to minimise the Earth's temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and to support nations in adapting to climate change as well as mitigating its impact.

This support for adaptation is essential. WaterAid works to improve access to water, sanitation and hygiene, which improve health and well-being, and allow communities to become more prosperous. These services are just as critical to communities' ability to recover from disaster.

Boreholes are better able to withstand drought than surface water. Rainwater collection systems allow a supply of clean water even when groundwater becomes polluted. And good sanitation helps prevent diseases from spreading when disaster strikes.

Diarrhoeal illnesses are the third leading cause of death among children under five, alongside pneumonia and malaria; more than half of these deaths are linked to dirty water and poor sanitation. That is 314,000 children who could be saved each year.

Davos powerbrokers can make it happen

Recognition is the first step towards change, and among the many breakfast meetings, receptions and deliberations at Davos this week will be a discussion on forming a Heads of State panel on water.

Political will and cooperation across borders are required to deal with the water challenges now exacerbated by climate change, and such a panel is a step in the right direction.

However it is only a first step.

World leaders committed to another agreement last year: to eradicate extreme poverty and create a fairer, more sustainable world by 2030 through 17 UN Global Goals on sustainable development. These goals are achievable, with political prioritisation and financing. But unabated climate change threatens those possibilities.

The politicians and business elite gathered in Davos this week represent a huge portion of the world's power and wealth. They can help make this change happen. We are calling upon them to keep those promises and act.