Addressing Fresh Water Deficiency
For many countries, fresh water availability is an acute concern. According to the United Nations, close to 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world’s population, already live in areas where freshwater is scarce. Another 1.6 billion people face chronic economic water shortage – lacking the needed infrastructure to access available water resources.
The reasons for water scarcity vary. In some regions, it is the sheer number of people in one location that is triggering the deficiency. In others, it is rising sea levels due to the effects of climate change. Regions with once expansive bodies of water, such as China’s Yangtze Delta and Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, now too suffer from direct impacts of climate change, including reduction in size and contaminated underground freshwater supplies further leading to scarce water supply.
In some environments, it is a particular industry, such as global cotton production, that plays a significant role in the growing issue. Reports show cotton production requires about 10,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of cotton — accounting for more than 3% of water consumed across all crop production.
Water-intensive agriculture also poses a threat to local water supplies, causing some rivers, such as the Colorado and the Indus, to no longer even reach the ocean. Because of this, over 1 billion people have no access to clean drinking water and 2 million people die annually from water-related diseases.
The World Economic Forum calls water scarcity “one of the most tangible and fastest growing social, political and economic challenges faced today.” But the reality remains that most of these grave concerns are occurring in the developing world and therefore not of immediate concern to industrialized nations and international media.
However, the developed world has caused many of today’s problems that are exacerbating today’s crisis. We buy and consume products that require enormous amounts of fresh water. The pound of beef cooked for dinner took nearly 1,800 gallons of water to produce, while the gallon of wine enjoyed alongside that meal took up to 1,000 gallons of water to make, most for irrigation. On top of this, many of these products are further contributing to climate change through the burning of fossil fuels.
Clearly, something needs to change.
But what and how do we change? And do we have the necessary tools to help us value water properly across the globe? These are just some of the questions that need to be asked in homes across the world.
But the onus is, of course, not only on the consumer to make a change in how they use and view water – it is equally on the producer. Just as access to water is essential to life, it is also essential to the sustainability of any business.
That’s why questions like whether it would be possible to put a differentiated price on water, or whether water use should be governed by stringent laws and regulations, must be considered not only in government offices but in boardrooms across the globe.
Companies need to start by making sure they manage their own fresh water sustainably, not depleting scarce resources, reusing water and making sure the discharge does not affect the local availability of clean freshwater.
For organizations like mine that operate in the chemicals and materials sector, we know that we don’t have the luxury of approaching these as rhetorical questions. Our industry uses water as a critical ingredient in our manufacturing operations, production, material processing and cooling.
That is why we must treat water as the limited resource it is. We know our long-term business success depends on optimizing our use of water through greater efficiency, innovative processes and new technologies. Our ambition is to achieve sustainable fresh water management at all our 300 manufacturing sites by 2015 – to date 86% of manufacturing sites have such systems.
Conserving water and evolving manufacturing processes to be more efficient cannot occur in a vacuum. However, it can also not be all about the bottom line. Water scarcity is occurring as a result of climate change, which means we must take a holistic approach to addressing our resource intensity. The same innovations companies are using to create new products and streamline processes must also be applied to finding radical solutions to address the interrelated issues of water use, energy, the use of fossil fuels and carbon pollution.
But we also know that on its own, efficiency within our operations is not enough to safeguard the resources we need for our business. We must mobilize partnerships with government bodies, businesses, NGOs and local communities to first improve our understanding of the shared fresh water challenges we face, ultimately enabling us to make better management decisions.
A collaborative approach involving many different parties will be essential if we all are to overcome the many technical, financial, legal and humanitarian issues often associated with access to fresh water. We know these issues cannot be solved overnight. But through collaboration, innovation and what we call “radical resource efficiency,” we will begin to not only ask the right questions, but also to find answers, apply insights and make strides toward preserving the world’s greatest natural resource.
Johan Widheden is a sustainability specialist for AkzoNobel.
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