The connections between the business world and the world’s water supply have gained increased attention lately, with a spate of new reports and news stories. Everyone from the United Nations to state and local governments are getting involved, and the conclusions for water-intensive companies -- and even less-intensive ones -- are implicit, if not explicit: The world’s freshwater supply is at risk and the question is when and where, not whether, there will be major droughts or shortages that could have a major disruptive effect on business and society.
But it’s not just disruptive weather or climate change that’s of concern. Consider the use of water to produce the global food supply. A new report from the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development warns that unless steps are taken to improve the way water is managed, twice the world’s current water consumption may be needed by 2050 to feed a global population of some 9 billion.
(By the way, a quick update on the Safe Water: Currency for Peace Act of 2005, which I lauded when it was introduced earlier this year. It would authorize funding for a pilot program to assist countries with high rates of water-borne illnesses, and require federal agencies to coordinate in developing a strategic plan to focus the United States’ commitment to global water issues. The bill has had no action since it was introduced March 2 and referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. There it sits. Click here to track the bill’s status.)
In the business world, companies in both developed and developing countries should expect to find water issues rising to the level of awareness that energy conservation and efficiency has seen in recent years. Business needs reliable water supplies to manufacture products and deliver services to its customers. It also needs safe sanitation systems to protect the health of its employees and to treat and recycle used water. Without these things, few companies can operate.
A report last fall from the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative, which focused on the “potential risks associated with water scarcity” called water “an emerging risk of strategic importance to businesses and their financial backers around the world.” It illuminated the need “to learn and expand on the issues that arise from dealing with water scarcity and highlight opportunities for the financial sector for contributing to sustainable development through active engagement in mitigating water related risks at different levels.”
The good news is that some companies already have dived in, implementing comprehensive water efficiency and management systems, giving them a jump on those that haven’t.
Addressing both energy and water involve extremely similar processes: conducting audits and establishing a current baseline; identifying cost-effective, low-hanging fruit for making efficiency improvements; generating organizational awareness of the issue through effective communication and training; getting top-level buy-in to tackle the bigger, longer-term, and more challenging issues, such as water-intensive manufacturing processes; engaging suppliers, activists, and other stakeholders; measuring and reporting; and on and on. If you've managed energy, you know the drill.
But businesses can’t solve most water problems by themselves, a fact underscored in a new report from the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. It shows how “sustainable water management requires collaboration between business, civil society, and governments.” The report, Collaborative Actions for Water Management, identifies steps companies can take, in interaction with other stakeholders, to ensure sustainable water management.
Some good stories along these lines already can be found. On its Water Sustainability Tool Web site, the Global Environmental Management Initiative offers a score of case studies involving its member companies: How Abbott Laboratories helped upgrade Puerto Rico’s inadequate drinking water system; how DuPont developed a wetlands water recovery system to replace its use of deep-well injection in disposing of wastewater in Texas; how Anheuser-Busch engaged multiple parts of the company in developing and implementing its water strategy; how Novartis harnessed employee education to produce water-management solutions that yielded significant returns. And others.
Increasingly, such stories will be expected of companies as water issues bubble to the surface around the globe. Unlike climate issues, where problems and their solutions have global impacts, water will be seen as a mostly local issue requiring local actions. But, if as experts predict, warmer climates and lowered water tables lead to widespread disruptions, activists and regulators will begin to connect the dots, foisting regulations or global treaties upon the business community.
And what seemed like a trickle of concern could turn into a flood.