The Business Sector Needs to Act on the Global Water Shortage

global water shortage

With so much focus on air quality, carbon footprint reduction and sustainable operations, businesses can easily lose sight of other issues that may be forthcoming. This includes the real potential of an impending global water shortage.

Nearly 66 percent of the world’s population lacks proper access to fresh water for at least one month out of every year. The problem is much worse for others. Further studies, including those published by the United Nations, state that approximately 700 million people now suffer from water scarcity in 43 different countries.

A massive chunk of the world’s water use is tied to the business sector: 69 percent of water used globally goes toward agriculture, while another 19 percent is used for industry. Clearly, businesses can’t afford not to pay attention to their own water usage.

The issue is serious enough that the United Nations recently established a set of Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, to be introduced by the year 2030. Business owners and industry leaders who research, understand and implement these SDGs and other strategies of water conservation will put themselves in a position to quickly respond to and possibly even counteract any future water crises.

Sustainable Development Goals at a glance

A total of 17 specific objectives, listed in order of greatest to least impact, can be found on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals website. Milestones include everything from putting an end to poverty, the U.N.’s topmost goal, to the 17th goal of revitalizing global collaboration and partnership. The sixth objective of the SDG agenda covers the availability and sustainability of clean water across the globe.

While the SDGs were first unveiled at a U.N. summit in September 2015, the plans weren’t enacted until January of this year. The U.N. hopes to achieve all 17 of its targets by the year 2030.

Internal water targets are a start

Businesses often fall into the trap of underestimating their water usage. The liquid they use in their facilities is clearly visible, but vast amounts of water also go into growing any foods or wood- and cotton-based merchandise they provide — right down to the shirts on their employees’ backs.

Internal water targets are a step in the right direction, but they can set too low a bar. Coca-Cola’s goal, for example, is the vague aim to “replenish” the water they use. Look to Nestlé for a better example of a clear, ambitious goal: The company has pledged to cut water use on every European site by an impressive 40 percent in the years leading up to 2020.

Improvement one business at a time

Still, businesses should embark on larger missions. One by one, some of the largest corporations are blazing a trail. General Mills is doing its part to highlight California’s water conditions by mapping the watersheds from both the San Joaquin and the Los Angeles rivers.

Meanwhile, the team at financial services giant BDO has a firm-wide sustainability program called BDO Green. “BDO is constantly looking for new ways to reduce our environmental footprint, educate our employees, and give back to the communities in which we operate. At BDO, we know we can do good as a firm only if we do good in the world around us,” says a BDO executive.

Pioneers like these companies can pave the way for others in the business sector that are interested in pursuing energy conservation, carbon footprint reduction, paperless record-keeping and other greening strategies on their own behalf.

The future is now

Regardless of any plans your company may have for water conservation, carbon footprint reduction or energy consumption in the future, the time to act is now. If necessary, don’t be afraid to reach out to suppliers and contacts who specialize in environmentally-friendly or sustainable operations. Given the recent boom in the profession, finding solutions that work within your budget and timeline isn’t the arduous task it once was.

Image via: barnimages/ waterfall

Corporate Responsibility

Recent headlines from the 6925 articles in this category:

Anum Yoon is a writer who is passionate about personal finance and sustainability. She often looks for ways she can incorporate money management with environmental awareness. You can read her updates on Current on Currency.

One response

  1. So no question that I’d agree with the general sentiments here. I’d go beyond stating “Internal water targets are a step in the right direction, but they can set too low a bar.” It’s not just “too low a bar”, it’s simply insufficient. Water risks stem from both internal and external factors and if you’re trying to mitigate water risks (be they physical, regulatory or reputational), you NEED to work externally. There simply is no other answer.

    However, I’d argue that the debate has shifted beyond internal vs. external targets and into the space of materiality (or meaningfulness) of targets. A great case in point is SDG 6.4 “By 2030, substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity”. If there is an SDG that is targeted at (and was influenced by) the private sector, this is it. Yet efficiency is not the solution to water scarcity. Water savings can sometimes have perverse outcomes from using MORE water overall (to produce more at greater levels of efficiency) to less resilient plants (shallower roots), to eliminating “excess” water that was either recharging aquifers or providing baseflow to local streams. See here for an example: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022169413008871

    The key to 6.4 is not the front end (i.e., “increase efficiency”) but rather the second part (“ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply”). The notion of water balance is likely to be critical and as such, the context (both spatially and temporally) becomes highly relevant to what your target looks like. As a person focused on water, I don’t care if you’re wasteful with water in an abundant environment (recognizing that it is still an energy issue); I care if you’re wasteful in a scarce environment (or at a scarce time of the year). This nuance is lost in virtually all corporate water goal/target setting at present and really needs to be throught through.

    In short, external action is a given, but the meaningfulness of that action (and the extent to which it accounts for context) will dictate strong vs. weak performance when it comes to water stewardship and ultimately, achievement of the SDGs.

Leave a Reply