Access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene is one of the most basic human needs but, according to the United Nations, by 2030, we could be experiencing a 40% shortage of freshwater resources globally.
At the centre of this is concern over water stress levels, i.e. the ratio of freshwater withdrawn to total renewable freshwater resources, which must remain below 25% to be considered stable. Stress levels above this threshold can have potentially devastating consequences for the environment, industry and the population. This can inhibit economic and social development, alongside exacerbating conflict. The scale of the problem is severe - in 2019, Northern Africa registered at a water stress level of over 100%, while in Central and Southern Asia stress levels peaked at 75%.
These water shortages and rising stress levels have been driven by rising demands for water from industry, particularly in agriculture and energy, as well rapidly expanding urbanisation.The misuse of water resources - through outdated infrastructure - water mistreatment and the contamination of natural water resources have compounded this issue. It has also been exacerbated by climate change, with growing challenges linked to degraded water-related ecosystems, water scarcity caused by a warming planet, underinvestment in water and sanitation and a lack of cooperation on transboundary water management.
In order to tackle issues relating to water stress, it is necessary to consider the security of water resources, i.e. the stability of water levels pending use by industry and other actors which rely on this resource for their livelihoods. Water security regards the capacity to safeguard sustainable qualities of usable water for communities, to allow for industry, human well-being and development. Water security is further exacerbated by climate change and has created an extra impetus for companies to utilise sustainable water management systems to safeguard against climate risks and to protect their business.
Solutions – Water Positivity?
As companies look to address these issues, the concept of ‘water positivity’, whereby companies look to return more water to freshwater than is withdrawn, has gained traction. Organisations are now racing to not only save water but to also identify areas – in their manufacturing, operations and supply chain – where water security is an issue and to overcompensate for usage in these areas.
There are a variety of actions companies can take and through policy, supporting good governance, improving physical infrastructure and mitigating negative impacts on the environment through operations, they can work to minimise their impacts on water stress levels. Meanwhile, measures such as minimising pollution, increasing water treatment, recycling and the safe reuse of wastewater will lead the way in safeguarding clean and safe water on a global scale. Some countries, such as Singapore, already recapture and reuse up to 90% of the water they use.
But others need to speed up. In order to safeguard against this growing issue, it is projected that current efforts to protect water resources need be quadrupled. The ESG movement, for example, should address water positivity in its reporting frameworks and consider water usage as an indicator toward progress. There are global frameworks, such as the AWS International Water Stewardship Standard, that operate as a globally applicable framework for major water users to assess their water usage and mitigate negative impacts, which should be adopted.
There are clear benefits to businesses as well in moving towards water positivity. According to the UN Global Compact CEO Mandate, achieving water positivity can aid businesses in crafting resilience for their own operations and the areas they conduct themselves in, allowing them to make a demonstrable contribution to SDG 6. This increases an organisation’s adaptability to external shocks created by water stress and enables them to better cope with demands from their consumers and within their supply chains. The proper assessment of risk of water scarcity to a company’s operations allows for targeted decision making that is equitable not just for the business, but for the future of our planet.
While water positivity still lacks a formal definition and assessment criteria, the onus is on businesses to define their mission transparently, set their strategic goals and to invest where tangible and measurable impacts can be made. In doing so they will help contribute to a safer, more sustainable and better future.
Many BEI members are already leading the way in addressing this issue, developing market-leading solutions in the water efficiency space. For instance, HR Wallingford delivers solutions at every level, from a single water supply system scheme to modelling conjunctive water supply systems, from regional scale models to analysis of water supply risks at a national level. As an industry leader in water resource management, they’ve undertaken projects across the globe in resilience, adaptation, and capacity – among much more. Another one of our members, the Water Research Centre, provides consultancy and services in the water, waste and the environmental sectors, supporting the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Both of these organisations will be presenting to international delegations drawn from across a number of water ministries and utilities at our event next Monday to showcase the UK private sector’s approach to innovation in the water sector. We look forward to sharing the outcomes of this event, as well as next Friday’s UK-India Water Tech Conference which we are also hosting, with our members next week. You can learn more about both events on our events page here.