(United Nations) “Vampiric” humanity is depleting the planet’s water resources “drop by drop”, warned the UN ahead of the start of a conference on Wednesday to try to meet the needs of billions of people, at risk in the face of an “imminent” global water crisis.

“Vampiric over-consumption and over-development, unsustainable exploitation of water resources, pollution and uncontrolled global warming are draining, drop by drop, this source of life for humanity,” the secretary said. UN General Antonio Guterres in the foreword to a report published a few hours before this United Nations conference on water, unprecedented for nearly half a century.

“Humanity has blindly embarked on a perilous path,” he points out. And “we all suffer the consequences”.

Not enough water in places, too much in others where floods are increasing, or contaminated water: if dramatic situations are legion in many places on the planet, the report of UN-Water and UNESCO published on Tuesday highlights the “imminent risk of a global water crisis”.

“How many people will be affected by this global water crisis is a matter of scenario,” lead author Richard Connor told AFP. “If nothing is done, between 40-50% of the population will continue to lack access to sanitation services and around 20-25% to safe drinking water,” he notes. And even if the percentages do not change, the world’s population is growing and the number of people affected with it.

In an attempt to reverse the trend and hope to guarantee by 2030 access for all to drinking water or toilets, objectives set in 2015, some 6,500 participants, including a hundred ministers and a dozen heads of state and government meet until Friday in New York, called to come up with concrete commitments.

But already, some observers are concerned about the scope of these commitments and the availability of the necessary funding to implement them.

However, “there is a lot to do and time is not on our side”, comments Gilbert Houngbo, president of UN-Water, a platform that coordinates the work of the United Nations, which has no dedicated agency on this subject.

No conference of this magnitude had been organized since 1977 on this vital but too long ignored question.

In a world where over the past 40 years freshwater use has increased by almost 1% per year, the UN-Water report first highlights water shortages that “trend to become widespread”, and to worsen with the impact of global warming, until soon to strike even the regions today spared in East Asia or South America.

Thus, approximately 10% of the world’s population lives in a country where water stress is high or critical. And according to the report by UN climate experts (IPCC) published on Monday, “about half of the world’s population” experiences “severe” water shortages for at least part of the year.

A situation that also highlights inequalities. “Wherever you are, if you’re rich enough, you’ll get water,” notes Richard Connor. “The poorer you are, the more vulnerable you are to these crises.”

The problem is not only the lack of water, but the contamination of what may be available, due to the absence or deficiencies of sanitation systems.

At least two billion people drink water contaminated with faeces, exposing them to cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio. Not to mention pollution by pharmaceuticals, chemicals, pesticides, microplastics or nanomaterials.

To ensure access to drinking water for all by 2030, current levels of investment should be multiplied by at least three, estimates UN-Water.

And this pollution also threatens nature. Freshwater ecosystems that provide invaluable services to humanity, including helping to combat global warming and its impacts, are “among the most threatened in the world” according to the report.

“We have broken the water cycle,” summarizes Henk Ovink, special envoy for water from the Netherlands, co-organizers with Tajikistan of this conference, to AFP.

“We must act now because water insecurity undermines food security, health, energy security or urban development and social issues,” he added. “It’s now or never, the opportunity of a generation.”