If we continue to use water at the today’s rate, 2/3 of the global population will live in water stressed areas by 2025. The regional, national, and international implications of this could be devastating because water is a trans-boundary resource; upstream activities affect downstream populations and watersheds span counties, regions and country lines. Increasing water scarcity from climate change, population and consumption growth causes competition for water among users such as industry, communities and governments. This competition and conflict can already be seen in certain areas around the world. How can we begin to solve this issue of water scarcity?
On Monday, I attended the introductory session for Promoting Water Efficiency: Pressure and Footprints sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme. Representatives from Water Footprint Network, Stockholm International Water Institute, PepsiCo, and World Resources Institute were on hand to discuss water efficiency and management practices. Here are some highlights from the introductory session. The takeaway message was that growing water scarcity means that governments, corporations, and individuals must overcome the challenges and find ways to enhance water efficiency and management.
What are the Challenges?
Water poses many challenges to stakeholders because:
- Water is both global, regional and local.
- Water is complex – local conditions must drive decisions.
- Correct data use is essential, but data quality and relevance is not always assured.
- Water is only one piece of the sustainability pie.
- Stakeholders have diverse needs for water – industry, drinking water, agriculture, energy, etc.
- Criteria for effective tools & standards is needed but it is very difficult to achieve.
Water and economic prosperity are closely linked. According to the 2006 United Nations Human Development Report, Africa loses 5% of its GDP, or $28.4 billion, each year through water-related losses and issues. Thus water efficiency and management can be linked to development goals. Water footprinting and water accounting, the practice of tracking water use from the production and consumption perspectives, can be used to decrease water use in production and supply chain practices. This especially helpful for countries with large agricultural exports because agriculture is the largest user of water worldwide. One leader in the field is Water Footprint Network (WFN), which uses spatial and temporal data to measure direct and indirect water use to create a water footprint for hundreds of plant and animal products and their production and supply chain processes. WFN uses this data to develop standards and tools for water footprinting and impact assessments for individual, corporation, and government use.
A corporate response to water management is the creation of multi-stakeholder initiatives to encourage the sharing of best practices. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) Water Project is one such multi-stakeholder initiative. Founded in 1997, the WBCSD represents 29 companies from 12 industrial sectors to provide a “cross-sectoral collective business voice which addresses sustainable water management and key policy initiatives.” Another is the Southeast Asia Apparel Water Action (SEAAWA) Project, which brought together four companies (H&M, Nike, Nautica, and Levi) to improve corporate water management within the supply chain in Cambodia and Vietnam. The project strove to facilitate better communication between companies and suppliers, improve wastewater discharge, and foster cooperative relationships between the apparel companies and regional stakeholders around local water risks. Next steps for SEAAWA include identifying specific production technologies to improve water management at individual sites and implementing those technologies.
In my opinion, although water efficiency and management techniques are still being developed, pushing ahead and finding solutions is critical. Corporations, governments, and consumers must be proactive, progressive, and willing to collaborate and share knowledge to advance the water management field. The public also needs to be more aware of the impact of indirect water use across the globe. The above examples are a beginning, but let’s not allow water scarcity to become an even bigger problem before we find any solutions.