As 2012 drips to a close, water scarcity was a hot topic amongst our writers here at TriplePundit. Whether we flushed out the details over emerging toilet technologies and challenges or questioned whether fracking was a safe energy option in the long run, the stubborn fact persists that water is now a huge business and human rights issue. More companies are placing a strong emphasis on water stewardship on their corporate social responsibility and sustainability agendas as the soaring thirst for water confronts rich and poor countries alike.
To that end, dare I present the top 10 water issues of 2012:
It’s in the toilet: Can this Victoria-era invention, which really has not changed much over the past 150 years, score a more sustainable makeover? Sanitation has emerged as a human rights issue and toilets are at the core of this challenge. The Gates Foundation sponsored a toilet competition to find a new solution for the 2.5 billion people who do not have access to this simple contraption. Companies such as Unilever realize that increasing access to toilets is a both a business and philanthropic opportunity. As dire as the situation is, the payoff is huge: UNICEF has calculated that for every $1 spent on sanitation, the end result is $5.50 in economic productivity.
Slash that water waste in your supply chain: PepsiCo is a leading example of how companies can achieve both monetary savings and improve their environmental stewardship record when focusing on water within the supply chain. Brewing companies such as AB InBev are no slouch either. Trouble can brew in towns that are confronting diminishing water supplies, as Coca-Cola experienced earlier this year in a New England town.
Droughts: Extreme weather, most recently Hurricane Sandy, has shaken the planet often this year. The drought in America’s Midwest and Texas this year has raised a bevy of questions, from its effects on hydropower to, of course, the wisdom of biofuels and whether water efficiency measures were enough. Remember how technology companies struggled with their supply chains after 2011’s floods in Thailand? Watch for food companies to face similar issues and devise new long term scenario plans in the coming years.
Biofuels: As more countries seek biofuels as part of their energy portfolios, questions over whether the consumption of water needed to grow these crops make them a viable alternative. But in regions where soil quality has suffered because of irrigation or excessive use of fertilizers, including the San Joaquin Valley, the cultivation of resilient crops such as sugar beets could make biofuels a more sustainable option.
Land rights: The demand for reliable access to food has spurred a global rush for land that will not dissipate anytime soon. This global “land grab” has endangered the livelihoods of countless small farmers across the world as they increasingly lose access to safe supplies of water. For companies seeking to expand into new emerging markets, such as Africa, both land and water rights will have to become a priority as they ensure their products are produced ethically and safely.
Fracking: On one hand, the natural gas boom has led to a decrease in the demand for coal. But there is a cost and plenty of controversy, depending on your perspective on fracking. TriplePundit writer RP Siegel has covered fracking extensively as the Obama administration has aggressively pursued an “all of the above” energy policy centered on natural gas. Concerns over fracking’s long-term impact on groundwater supplies have spurred states like New York to severely restrict fracking despite unrelenting pressure. Could new technologies make fracking safer? Watch us to cover fracking with a continued laser-like focus in 2013.
The Middle East as an emerging water technology lab: The United Arab Emirates and Qatar have the money and interest in finding new water technologies other than energy-hogging desalination. As with the case of clean energy, do not be surprised if the Gulf region becomes a “blue technology” hotbed: after all, they have to quench the thirst of a growing population, and of course, these countries have the funds to underwrite such research and development.
Textiles becoming dryer: The textile industry, partly because of the growth of water-intensive crops such as cotton and the production of materials such as polyester, has a massive effect on water supplies across the world. Then, there is the huge amount of water needed to keep these clothes clean after purchase. But, between the farm and the household laundry room, exciting new developments have emerged. Athletic companies such as Nike, Adidas and Puma are experimenting with waterless dying and other processes that will slash water use throughout their operations. Some of the newest water innovations are coming from apparel companies that were once known more for labor controversies than sustainable technologies.
Improved water access for the poor: Stop digging wells. NGOs are increasingly partnering with businesses to find market-based solutions to help the world’s poor gain access to safe water. Water.org has launched programs including funding taps into municipal piped water.
Can bottled water be sustainable? We are not exactly bottled water-friendly territory here; Gina-Marie Cheeseman, for example, has brought attention to the bottled water industry’s obnoxious and absurd campaign against tap water. But, at least some companies such as Nestle are taking (slow) steps to address all that waste. Ford Motor is one company that is doing something with those plastic bottles; the automaker has partnered with a textile company to use upholstery made out of PET in its cars.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).
Image credit: Leon Kaye