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The Big Thirst: Water Woes and What to Do About Them

"The golden age of water is over," asserted Charles Fishman, author of “The Big Thirst,” as he shared a sweeping view of global water usage with participants at the recent Commit!Forum in New York.

Fishman presented alternating stories of dramatic progress in water management and accounts of worsening access to clean drinking water as he described our changing relationship with this most basic of commodities.

Golden Age Gone Fishman barraged the audience with fascinating and sometimes frightening statistics about water availability from around the globe, including:

  • While New Yorkers can easily indulge in bottles of imported Fiji water to augment their secure supply of safe tap water, 53 percent of Fiji residents do not have access to clean, safe drinking water.

  • Australia has had to remake its entire economy because almost every major city nearly ran out of water during the past decade.

  • Despite India's economic and technological advances, half of its citizens don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water every day.  That is twice the population of the United States.  Not surprisingly, two percent of India’s GDP is spent on treating diarrhea each year.

  • The water level in Lake Mead has plunged 100 feet over the past decade due to a drought in the Colorado River.
No Global Water Crisis Despite all these woes, we do not have a global water crisis, argues Fishman.  Noting that all water problems are local, he maintains that all solutions are also local and that solutions are readily available.

“Once you have tackled and solved your water problem, you have solved them,” stated Fishman, adding that he found that premise very empowering.

Fishman shared an encouraging account of the Australian town of Salisbury which constructed 36 wetlands to purify storm water and then repurpose it to supply a water-intensive wool cleaning facility, irigate athletic fields, and support other activities that can use non-potable water. Through creative thinking, this town has effectively killed two birds with one stone.  It is complying with storm water management regulations while continuing to supply its residents and businesses during a prolonged drought. In fact, the town of Salisbury now brings in $1.5 million in revenue by selling water that it was going to have to pay to clean to meet more rigorous storm water management regulations.

“This town turned water that was a burden into a resource,” marveled Fishman. Predicting a coming age of incredible innovation surround water management, he also shared corporate success stories.

Smart Water Business is way ahead of consumers in recognizing and innovating solutions to water scarcity.  Fishman, who also authored “The Wal-mart Effect,” described how chipmaker IBM has capitalized on its success in water conservation by leveraging this expertise into a new source of revenue.

Microchips have to be washed with ultra-pure water several times during the manufacturing process, which makes IBM’s plant in Burlington, VT, a water-intensive operation, using 3.2 million gallons of water each day. As a result, IBM has acquired a sophiscated ability to measure, manage and process water, which has enabled it to drive down both water use and chip production costs. Beyond that, IBM now sees a business opportunity for using its water sensor systems and water management expertise to help other corporations better manage their water use.

“IBM's employees now teach its customers how to manage water more intelligently,” stated Fishman. “That’s what smart water looks like.”

A Fresh Perspective Fishman urged participants to take a fresh perspective on their use of water, both at home and on the job. The first step in better water management is awareness – understanding how and when you’re using this undervalued resource. That heightened awareness can lead to new insights, solutions for  water resource issues and perhaps even a strategic advantage.

“Water is a competitive advantage.  Water and water expertise can be a resource and product. It is also an economic tool,” concluded Fishman.


Is bottled water bad? Read more here.

Cindy Mehallow

Cindy Mehallow is principal of CRM Communications, a woman-owned sustainability communications consulting practice specializing in corporate social responsibility reporting and stakeholder communications. GRI-Certified in sustainability reporting, Cindy has produced award-winning sustainability reports for Fortune 500 clients in a variety of industries.

Read more stories by Cindy Mehallow

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