The annual World Water Week opened over the weekend here in rainy Stockholm, a city far removed from the droughts that are ravaging much of the world. This year’s meeting, focused on water and food security, officially opened today. Speakers and attendees called out to businesses both large and small to do more to solve the world’s water crisis given the compounding pressures an emerging middle class, surging population growth and urbanization will have on the world’s water supplies.
For decades, water was an afterthought for businesses and their suppliers, but water stewardship has increasingly become central to companies’ overall strategies. Given that water powers many industrial processes, water constraints are arguably more of a threat than energy ones. True, our society cannot switch to solar, wind or biomass on a dime if the world’s fossil fuels are depleted in the near future.
But, if businesses and their customers continue to use water at the current rate, the scramble to adapt in a world throttled by water scarcity would make the aforementioned energy transition feel as calm as the breezes that drift off the Riddarfjarden Bay in central Stockholm.
So what can businesses do? The actions of a few companies here in Sweden this week offer hints at how business can not only adapt, but lead the way in solving the complex problems that involve this most precious resource.
“What could we do about food and water if we had a fraction of the resources that are being lavished on the financial system?” – Jens Berggren of the Stockholm International Water Institute
It is true that despite disappearing groundwater sources, increased contamination and of course droughts from Australia to America, relatively little has been done to address the threats that the world’s overconsumption of water represent.
The “green revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s, which resulted in a sharp rise in agricultural productivity, at first glance was one of the great success stories in history. But now we are paying for that impressive transformation in farming. Estimates suggest that half the world’s food is wasted between farm and fork. Meanwhile one billion people face hunger daily and two billion are undernourished. Antiquated farming methods such as surface irrigation flood fields from the San Joaquin Valley to India, wasting water when we need more food than ever. As the world’s temperature continues to rise, phenomena with mind-boggling names like rising potential evapotranspiration (PET) will confound both farmers and scientists.
And as a more prosperous population demands more water, the current amount of freshwater devoted to the globe’s agriculture sector, which hovers around 70 percent, will cause more angst at both kitchen tables and corporate offices. Statistic after statistic paint a bleak picture of a world without water. Can businesses direct us out of this mess?
Some companies are already working water efficiency and stewardship. True, there is a corporate social responsibility component to this shift, but at the core is keen long-term business sense. But their success lies in working with other organizations to make a difference.
Grundfos, a Danish well pump manufacturer, works with various stakeholder groups in order to develop a more comprehensive carbon and water strategy. In India’s arid Rajasthan, SABMiller has partnered with the Confederation of Indian Industry and Humana to build recharge structures that replenish groundwater supplies in local communities. Meanwhile, in the Punjab region of India, PepsiCo has worked with other organizations to scale the direct seeding method of rice cultivation, slashing water usage 30 percent while increasing the amount of land devoted to rice farming from 500 acres in 2008 to 10,500 acres this year. PepsiCo also had its own water recharging project in the town of Paithan, a town in India’s richest state that was long stricken by empty wells.
The takeaways that Grundfos, SABMiller and PepsiCo offer us is that indeed, businesses can take the initiative in solving some of the world’s most intractable water problems. But they cannot do it alone. NGOs, trade associations and government agencies must collaborate to build capacity and share knowledge to overcome this global threat. Therein lies the theme of this week in Stockholm: cooperation is necessary to maintain our most precious resource. Businesses really do not have a choice on this issue. The alternative is financial ruin, not to mention the vast suffering that will worsen in the near future.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and covers sustainable architecture and design for Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.
Disclosure: PepsiCo covered the cost of Leon Kaye’s attendance at World Water Week.
Photo courtesy World Water Week.