Parched: Strategy & Policy in a World with Less Water

It’s World Water Day, a United Nations-driven initiative that aims to increase global awareness of sustainable development. Among the many consequences of climate change, few are so frightening as the consequences of a future when water is a rationed, scarce resource. The myriad issues are contentious and alarming.

Global news agencies have for decades covered the devastating droughts of eastern Africa, and southern Asia. More recently, Australia’s ‘Millennium Drought’ captured international media attention and cost the Australian government more than $4.5B in assistance funding during the drought’s 15-year official duration. And today, USA Today is asking whether it’s time for a national water policy in America, as it considers the drought that now covers more than half of the United States.

In few places is the overuse of water more evident than California’s central agricultural valley. To drive through the valley is to travel between lush, fertile properties (owned by those who can afford to pay the ever-increasing costs of irrigation) and fallow spaces that are stark dustbowls in comparison. Now four years into an emergency-level drought, California just experienced the driest January since 1850, when records were first kept.

Of course, climate change also creates major floods, so water issues aren’t only about scarcity. In eastern North America this year, record snowfall is driving up water levels in the Great Lakes, home to 20% of the world’s fresh water. Understanding the toll such heavy precipitation takes on infrastructure and cities is just the first step to adapting to this new reality.

Managing water consumption

In the next decade, water is likely to be the most important policy issue in America, eclipsing undocumented immigration and foreign affairs. And the United States is not unique in this regard: In many countries around the world, ‘water security’ is an important dialogue that’s well under way.

Effective policy always begins with effective public engagement, and that, in turn, begins with awareness raising. World Water Day aims to increase awareness of water’s foundational role in all aspects of life—health, nature, urbanization, industry, energy, food, and ultimately social equity.

The average American takes a five-minute shower every morning, using as much water as an average person in the slums of a developing country might use in an entire day. Fresh, cold, potable water is available at the turn of a tap, whereas the norm in other countries is a long walk to a community well. In short, the availability of clean, fresh water is taken for granted.

A carbon footprint quantifies GHG emissions. We should do the same with water. But water’s even more complicated.

It’s imperative as water becomes more scarce that each of us understands how much is realistic and sustainable for us to consume. One mechanism for this learning might be a ‘water footprint.’ Tony Maas, former Director of World Wildlife Fund’s freshwater program, and a respected consultant on water policy and issues, explains the concept: “In the same way that a carbon footprint quantifies the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by a product or organization, a water footprint quantifies the amount of water required” to produce goods. Responsible individuals also use the concept of a carbon footprint to consider their own personal impact; we should do the same with water. But water is even more complicated.

It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce just one pound of market-ready meat, while a pound of wheat uses just 25 gallons. To really understand the impact of our own lifestyles on the planet’s water resources, we must integrate facts like this into our calculations. Thinking beyond the water in our morning showers, or in our meals, to its involvement in production of the clothes we wear and so many other aspects of our lives becomes a very complicated proposition very quickly.

Managing business impact

If counting water is too complicated to be realistically achievable for the average individual, perhaps its incumbent on businesses to be more careful about their water use and more explicit and transparent about it and related themes.

Maas describes the “invisible risks” businesses face in an interconnected, global economy, in the context of corporate water footprints. “Early efforts by business and industry to understand and assess these risks have tended to focus on their operational water footprint—on the implications of local or regional water issues for local production facilities. But in a world of globalized trade, supply chains for most products reach across continents and often stretch around the planet.” So impacts on local water systems far afield from central corporate operations pose potential risks to the company.

Water must be included as a key aspect of companies’ CSR materiality analyses. The apparel industry, for example, increasingly recognizes the importance of its impact on fresh water, and companies are individually and collectively taking steps to foster conservation efforts.

It can take 100 gallons of water to produce a single pound of cotton—so it’s four times as thirsty as wheat. Add to this the fact that more than 20% of the world’s commercial products is now manufactured in India, China, Bangladesh and Pakistan—not countries known for their abundance of water—and the challenge is clear. Some brands are seeing this challenge as a significant marketing opportunity: Levi Strauss recognized the amount of water consumers use to wash their jeans, and encouraged them simply to wash them less often!

Breakthroughs in waterless dyeing, and manufacturing using recycled ingredients, are two more ways that companies have been conserving water.

Managing natural ecosystems

Ultimately, the most important global policy effort needs to focus on restoring and preserving natural ecosystems. As climate change continues to shift rainfall patterns, and as an increasing global population puts greater and greater pressure on underground aquifers and other ‘permanent’ sources of water, the world could face a 40% shortfall of water in the next 15 years.

The UN’s annual World Water Development report, which was released in New Delhi a couple of days ago, urges policy makers and communities to focus on conservation and wastewater recycling. More than 80% of India’s massive population relies on groundwater for drinking, because surface water is so heavily bacteria-laden and polluted. In India, as in California, those aquifers are not replenished by nature as rapidly as they’re drawn down by human consumption.

Governments must intervene, writing policies and legislation requiring industries to constrain (or cap) their water use, to incentivize innovation in manufacturing, and to halt outflows of industrial effluent that damages drinking water.

In the end, water is a finite resource. Inconceivable as it might be to those who enjoy water in abundance, the fact remains that if people, business and governments don’t act responsibly, they could all be parched by the consequences.

Mike Rowlands is a Principal with Junxion.

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