The water crisis by the Global Commission on the Economics of Water: A totalising narrative built on shaky numbers

Arnald Puy
School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK; a.puy@bham.ac.uk

Bruce Lankford
Emeritus Professor of Water and Irrigation Policy, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK; b.lankford@uea.ac.uk

ABSTRACT: Reports by the 2023 Global Commission on the Economics of Water (GCEW) claim that a global water crisis is underway because the world is close to its upper planetary boundary for water. We contend that these reports are flawed in two distinct ways: 1) their use of the planetary boundaries framework as a sweeping narrative lacks justification, ignores alternative framings and disregards scale; and 2) their numeracy is substandard, with arithmetic errors and overstated numerical accuracy. These flaws cast a shadow on the GCEW’s capacity to convey robust knowledge about the water cycle and water scarcity. Rather than acting as an honest broker to explore potential policy scenarios based on our best available water science, the GCEW resembles an instrument to further the planetary boundaries framework and its associated scientific, political and economic interests.

KEYWORDS: Planetary boundaries, irrigation, water cycle, modelling, uncertainty