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Water Sustainability – What Can The Past Teach Us For The Future?

Sustaining water resources has been an important factor in the development and survival of civilizations. The ability to use water in sufficient quantities, finding and harnessing it and competently draining excess has enabled humans to sustain life, prosper and has even helped to protect from natural disasters and human threats.

Since the earliest humans we have constantly innovated ways to use, harness and exploit water. Evidence of ancient rites and harvest festivals demonstrate that primitive man recognized its dependence on successful crops and protecting their environment. Throughout history, civilizations have increased their knowledge and skill in their management of water relating directly to the increase in urbanization. Simply, humans have always been aware that water has ensured the food supply, which in turn aids commerce and therefore prosperity. Each generation that has discovered this has learned how to use it for their own end, whether for drinking, food supply and everyday residential life, through to even defense and protection.

We are living in an era where access to clean water is becoming less widely available and where we have to recognize that we need to make significant changes to ensure the development and survival of our society. So what does this mean for our generation? Can we learn from history and follow in the footsteps of many generations to balance our usage and preserve our sources for future generations?

The current situation: The United Nations has estimated that 1.1 billion people lack access to safe water. We have a population of more than 6.7 billion people to maintain, a figure that is vastly growing. Our generation is already being labelled an ‘anthropocene’, which defines our period of time in Earth’s history as being the first in which activities of humans first began to have a significant global impact on the Earth’s climate and ecosystems.

The good news: Humans have rediscovered solutions and ways to use water effectively time and time again over the last 200,000 years and we can do it again.

We have to rethink how much water we actually need if we are to learn how to share the Earth’s supply. So how do we do this? Take drastic steps and increase the price of water to more closely reflect its value, or encourage water companies to install metres to force the consumer to see how much they’re using? This would certainly ease the problem but it is likely to prove highly unpopular! Instead we need to change our behaviour – we have to look to our ancestors, follow their lead and innovate.

Encouraging people to cut down on an individual basis brings about a wealth of opportunities for innovation in technology to raise water productivity and further increase our knowledge and skill in the management of water. Here, the key to the success is to encourage responsible, educational communication to the consumer in order to change behaviour gradually.

The innovation is starting to happen already – the LG Steam Direct Drive washing machine not only uses 35% less water but it actually has a display to teach the user how to wash more efficiently by using full loads. Researchers at Leeds Univesity claim to have come up with the first waterless washing machine, using Xerox technology, that tumbles the clothes with plastic chips to remove stains. Surf Excel has added anti-foam agents to its hand wash powder in order to limit the amount of rinses required.

Great work is being done but it is necessary for manufacturers to communicate with and educate the consumer. For example, Ariel uses their packaging to encourage their consumer to save water by providing tips and Ecover use theirs to offer free water saving ‘hippos’ for toilet cisterns and also offer information about water conservation. This is best served when the manufacturer is taking steps in-house to change their own behavior and is communicating their own steps. For example, Coca-Cola announced in January 2008 that they are taking steps to reduce the amount of water they use and improve efficiency, so while not claiming to be perfect they are leading by example.

If this type of educational and responsible communication increases there’s no doubt that consumer behavior will change and we will succesfully take the first step in easing the water situation.

Diana Verde Nieto is Founder and CEO of Clownfish www.clownfish.co.uk a communications and brand agency dedicated to making sustainability tangible for business.

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