Companies and nations need to intelligently approach the issue of water availability. Failure to do so can result in declining profit margins, environmental calamity and even social unrest.
A new article in the Economist shows that the amount of water being withdrawn from river systems and other resources is strained beyond the point of sustainability. Waterways – including the Colorado, Rio Grande, Indus, Murray-Darling and Yellow rivers – are drained by the time they reach the sea. Not coincidentally, these rivers support many of the world’s fertile agriculture zones.
The article cites some examples of water issues that have spilled over into dangerous territory.
- After South Korea signed a deal to lease half of Madagascar’s arable land for grain production, unrest in Madagascar forced a change in government. The new leadership voided the deal.
- California has declared a state of emergency over water, and Governor Schwarzenegger is threatening rationing.
- A decade-long drought has seized up agriculture production in Australia.
- Brazil and South Africa have endured electrical brownouts because there is not enough water to run hydroelectric turbines.
Most nations outside of the Middle East use less than one-fifth of available water to support human society.
And as the global economy grows, the strain on water resources will rise. As people become wealthier, their diet’s rely more on water-intensive foods like proteins instead of grains.
According to the article, agriculture accounts for about 75 percent of the world’s water use, industry uses less than 20 percent and cities account for the rest.
So, while global population is expected to rise by 2 billion by 2025, the effect from changed diets will account for more water use. As an example, the article points out that in 1985, Chinese ate about 20 kg of meat a year. Now they eat about 50 kg. Compounded over a billion people, the water used to produce that meat translates into 390km3 (1km3 is 1 trillion litres) of water, or about as much water used in all of Europe, for all purposes.
There is room for improvement, however. The article points out that it takes three times the water to grow corn in India as it does in the United States or China. Improved techniques can go a long way.
In addition to water strains caused by the global economy, the world is facing an additional threat from climate change, which will have far-reaching and undefined effects.
Some businesses are taking a proactive approach to water conservancy. For instance, by 2012 Coca Cola aims to reduce by 20 percent the amount of water used in producing its beverages.
And by 2010 the Nature Conservancy says it will develop a certification plan to give companies seals of approval, judged by their efficient use of water.
Environmental Leader recently featured a series of guest columns from the World Water Forum, written by Bjorn Von Euler, director of corporate philanthropy for ITT Corp. Here are the columns.