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Global Water Resources Pushed to the Brink

Reaching a global population of seven billion people could push water resources to the brink, unless agriculture and industry act fast to cut demand.

Water use could reach 8,680,000,000,000 cubic meters this year. A study warned in 2009 that global water requirements would grow to 6,900 billion m3 by 2030, and that this would be 40% above current accessible and reliable supplies by 2030. It looks like we’re already set to overshoot readily available freshwater supplies.

Water use has risen at more than twice the rate of population growth in the last century, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI). Water use is expected to increase by 50 percent between 2007 and 2025 in developing counties and 18 percent in developed ones, with most demand growth coming from the urbanisation in the poorest countries. The risk of peak water becoming the “new oil” is putting water scarcity on the agendas of many companies.

Currently, only 8 percent of the planet’s fresh water supply goes to domestic use, about 70 percent is used for irrigation and 22 percent by industry. Droughts, low rainfall, floods and contamination contribute to water risk. Australia’s Murray-Darling basin, the Colorado River basin in the Southwestern United States and the Yangtze and Yellow river basins in China are among high-risk areas. Water scarcity and water stress – when demand exceeds supply or poor quality restricts use – has already hit water-intensive companies and supply chains in these areas indirectly.

China, for example, produces about 25 percent of global cotton production, with more than half of its cotton grown in the high-water risk areas of the Yangtze and Yellow river basins. Cotton contributes 90 percent of natural fibres used in the global textile industry, so water risk in China’s cotton-producing regions increases price volatility in the supply chains of many textile companies. China’s worst-ever winter drought drove up cotton prices last year.

Cotton farming contributes most to supply chain water consumption (22 percent) across 30 Apparel Retailers in Trucost’s database. Retailers with the largest exposure include Kohl’s Corp., Inditex S.A, H&M Hennes & Mauritz AB and Gap Inc. High cotton prices contributed to profits at H&M Hennes & Mauritz AB falling 20 percent over the nine months to August 2011. Meanwhile, drought in Texas destroyed much of the year’s cotton crop, causing Gap to cut its profit forecast by 22 percent.

Chart 1: Water consumption in the supply chain of Apparel Retailers   

fotw water

The WRI calls for integrated water management that takes water needs into account, as well as where and how to use resources more efficiently. To do this, companies need to quantify the water they are using directly and indirectly, and to understand risks to supplies of raw materials in water scarce regions. So companies such H&M Hennes & Mauritz AB, Inditex S.A are starting to look at hot spots of water risk. Some are doing so in partnership of the Better Cotton Initiative, which promotes more sustainable practices. A trial in Pakistan using Better Cotton farming methods saw pesticide and water use fall by 32 percent on average, with profits up 69 percent.

Volatility will continue as weather-related supply risks increase with climate change impacts. In sectors such as Apparel Retailers and Home & Furnishing, firms that understand supply chain water risks before competitors will be more resilient as pressure mounts on resources.

Steve Bullock manages the supply chain research team at Trucost and is responsible for the delivery of supply chain projects to clients in the public and private sector. Since joining in November 2008, Steve has worked with clients including Thomson Reuters, The Environment Agency, Capital Ambition and the Formula One Teams Association. Before joining Trucost, Steve worked for 2 years as a Data Analyst for a performance management consultancy firm. Steve has a BA in Geography and a MSc in Sustainable Development from the University of Exeter.

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