Each year on March 22, World Water Day is observed by the UN to highlight the importance of freshwater and advocate for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. The 2022 theme—Groundwater, Making the Invisible Visible-brings attention to the often-overlooked resource of groundwater and its impact.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations:
“… the annual amount of available freshwater per person has declined by more than 20 percent in the last two decades. This is a particularly serious issue in Northern Africa and Western Asia, where per capita freshwater has declined by more than 30 percent…”
The sustainable water management actions companies take today will determine the well-being of citizens across the world.
For most businesses—especially those in more water-intensive industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, food and hospitality—sustainable water management is becoming as critical as energy management to control costs and ensure a safe supply. The cost of water use is rising as well, steadily rising in the U.S. year after year.
More and more, investors are challenging businesses to take meaningful steps to address climate change and water sustainability. If you are a multi-site company, not having a water sustainability strategy is a risk, especially if investors see you as ill-prepared for the changes you might face if there are water shortages or supply disruptions. Companies can choose to disclose water issues separately when reporting to CDP, GRI and the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (whose questionnaires are aligned for easier reporting.
We know that water costs are quickly rising, but why? There are two main macro trends that are leading not only to increasing costs, but a shortage of quality water in many parts of the world.
One of the primary effects of climate change is the disruption of the water cycle. One year may have sufficient snowpack or rainfall that fills reservoirs while the next five years may be below average (sometimes called “precipitation whiplash”). These variations can tip a relatively stable climate out of balance and jeopardize water, food and energy systems we rely on. To manage risk and protect water resources, many state and local governments are implementing water policies, restrictions and fines on both businesses and consumers.
Much of our water infrastructure was laid in the early to mid-20th century with a lifespan of 75-100 years. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, Drinking Water Report, there are:
“an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 [water main] breaks per year; this is equivalent to a water main break every two minutes.”
This equates to an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water being lost each day.
As our planet experiences more disruptions in our water supply, World Water Day is the perfect time for companies to consider their own impacts on water supply and water safety and security. Water conservation not only helps keep costs in check, but it also helps sustain resources for everyone to ensure we “leave no one behind.”
In order to take meaningful action on water sustainability, companies need to know what their current water footprint is and set future conservation goals. Fortunately, we expect to see a growing adoption of zero-water strategies, both as part of overall carbon strategies as well as on its own.
Carbon strategies will lead companies to place a greater focus on water targets in link with their carbon objectives. According to the UN World Water Development Report 2020, water management plays an important part in climate change mitigation; water efficiency has a direct effect on energy savings, which leads to a reduction of GHG emissions.
But water footprint reduction will increasingly be tackled as an objective on its own. By 2040, global water demand is expected to increase by more than 50 percent, primarily from manufacturing, electricity generation and households. Including a water management strategy as part of your organization’s overall sustainability strategy can help protect from climate risks related to water, ensure water will be there for your business needs, help reduce your carbon footprint, and ensure a safe supply for the localities in which you operate. The more water an organization uses, the bolder actions it can take to reduce.
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While actions to conserve water have not, so far, received as much attention as those focused on zero carbon goals, numerous companies provide inspirational examples of water footprint reductions.
Many companies, cities, and water districts provide examples of innovative water approaches. Unlike carbon, the impact of these initiatives is at the watershed level. A significant effort will be required to generalize these good practices across basins and regions, particularly in water-intensive sectors such as food or apparel. The collective efforts driven by water resource management organizations such as GWP, WRG, WWF, IMWI remain essential, but important efforts can also be carried out at the company level.
Zero water goals will look different for every company, so strategies must be focused. First, we look at where water management strategies will make the greatest impact. A global organization will have different strategies for its locations in specific watersheds in India or the Middle East versus Canada; a company in the U.S. might employ different approaches in the desert Southwest than it would in the rainy Northwest. Understanding water scarcity is key, and a great resource is Water Resources Institute’s Aqueduct that identifies and evaluates water risks around the world.
Striving for zero water goals also means understanding use. You can’t manage what you don’t measure, so data is critical to establishing baselines, identifying where usage is highest and tracking progress to goal.
Good data will set a foundation for efficiency interventions; there too, the potential will vary by industry. For large users, the development of a shadow water price can be a powerful tool to incentivize change within the company
Once organizations have implemented water efficiency projects, they can start looking at ways to compensate for what is used to bring net consumption to zero. For example, a large manufacturer might invest in building onsite solutions for water reclamation or re-channel runoff back to the water table. For small water users, this may not be feasible, but innovative organizations such as BEF are helping build options for Water Restoration Certificates in partnership with a range of organizations in the water sector.
Finally, reporting water footprints and reduction efforts is a growing practice for companies. According to CDP, over 2,400 companies disclosed water targets in 2019, which is a 15 percent increase over 2018 and a 70 percent increase in the last 3 years. Data and disclosure are crucial to close the gap in achieving sustainability goals.
It’s Time to Play Your Role in Sustainability Towards Circularity.
A new generation will require companies to move beyond zero carbon commitments toward a broader definition of their sustainability footprint and will want to know what your organization is doing to reduce your water use. Better water management also means less energy, less waste, and fewer carbon emissions.
Take the steps today to understand how your business is utilizing water resources from the supply chain to the facility and how you can stand out as a zero water leader.
Let's work together to build your water management strategy.