Water may be the world’s greatest natural resource, but it is also increasingly in short supply. That’s a problem for communities in water-constrained areas, as well as industry organizations.
While water covers 71 per cent of the world’s surface, just 2.5 per cent is fresh. And of the world’s fresh water, most is found in glaciers and ice caps (68.7 per cent), groundwater (30.1 per cent) and surface or other water (1.2 per cent). A recent United Nations report, Valuing Water, states that the world will face a water deficit of up to 40 per cent by 2030.
These metrics reveal why freshwater is so sought after. However, its availability has been further constrained by the impacts of climate change, including floods and droughts; ongoing population growth; and, of course, consumer and industry consumption of this precious resource, among other variables. A lack of fresh water also impacts communities, constraining daily living and future growth in many areas around the world. For example, the pandemic has impacted vulnerable communities more than Western ones due to the lack of proper WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) supplies.
Industries rely on fresh water access to run their businesses
Myriad industries, ranging from consumer drinks and packaged goods, to agriculture, chemicals, energy and mining, life sciences, manufacturing, paper, technology and textiles, all use fresh, clean water to develop and manage products and services throughout their lifecycle. From receiving and integrating raw materials, to finishing and shipping products, and processing waste, water is the current that makes heavy industry run. In addition, industries create an ongoing supply of wastewater that must be stored or treated and returned to the environment. When wastewater is not cleaned and released, catastrophes such as the predicted collapse of a reservoir of toxic phosphate wastewater in Florida can and do occur.
Without an ample supply of fresh water, organisations may experience significant supply chain shocks. This is already happening. In Taiwan, an ongoing drought has harmed that country’s ability to develop advanced microchips used in products the world over.
Industry can lead by driving global water innovation
To ensure their long-term viability, organisations must innovate new water solutions. Much like other sustainability issues, there is no single magic bullet for solving global scarcity issues. However, industry partners can come together, each adding value and ultimately creating end-to-end solutions that benefit all. Here are some ideas to get started.
- Make a public commitment: Nothing galvanises action like a public commitment to change. Research water issues, talk to your value chain partners and explore opportunities for early action. Then add water to your environmental, sustainability and governance (ESG) goals, specifying how you will help drive value around this important global issue. Many firms are committing to net-zero water consumption or even becoming water-positive by setting strategy and making multiple changes across their business now.
- Calculate the value of water: What does water mean to your business? Take time to map your water usage across all of your products and processes, as well as the plants you operate and geographies and industries you serve. Ask your partners to do the same. You can use your shared ecosystem maps to identify ways you can problem-solve across your value chain and amplify results together. Valuing Water provides some helpful insights into how to think about creating a total economic metric for water including its direct and indirect use, option value (your future usage), bequest value (future generational usage) and right of existence value.
- Decrease water usage: A first stop on the path to water sustainability is to reduce consumption. Solutions are as various as the industries involved. Organisations can adopt more efficient irrigation systems; update aging infrastructures to eliminate water leaks; improve production processes to reduce raw material usage; trade plastic packaging for eco-friendly alternatives like PulPac’s or none at all; and treat wastewater and prevent its release into fragile ecosystems, among other changes. Another option is to rethink the way products are produced and finished. For example, the consumer drinks industry can add flavour or carbonation in the regions where drinks are to be sold, rather than transporting finished goods across the world.
- Create mandates and metrics: To take a leadership role, consider implementing mandates for your value chain partners, much like Wal-Mart did when it launched its sustainability strategy in 2005, reducing packaging, among other gains. You can also adopt technology solutions, such as blockchain, QR codes and digital fingerprint IDs to manage water usage across your own and partner processes, including logistics.
- Take a regional approach to water innovation: Your organisation shares water resources and infrastructures with other industry organisations. Identify ways that you can share critical resources to reduce your overall water impact. Economic and environmental regulators and non-governmental organisations can also collaborate to reduce red tape, with the goal of accelerating regional innovation. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations provides a Water Productivity Open Access Portal that growers around the world can use to identify productivity gaps and develop new solutions regionally.
- Develop more water: With so much of the world’s water found in oceans, desalination is an obvious strategy for increasing usable water. Currently, the energy used to produce it is up to 23 times that used for conventional water, which increases costs and decreases the scope of its usability. However, the technology is always improving. Desolenator has developed a system that uses solar power to desalinate seawater to create fresh drinking water in communities that need it. Other strategies include capturing and storing more rainwater, harvesting water from the air, cleaning greywater of contaminants to make it potable, and converting and reusing wastewater. Technology, such as the Internet of Things (IoT) platform Water Source Australia has developed, provide invaluable metrics to ensure water quality and safety, before it is consumed by communities. With the aid of IoT, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and analytics, water innovators can push the boundaries of what is possible as they design new solutions.
Your firm can secure its business future, serve your customers and communities, and leave the world in a better place by becoming a water innovation leader. Start today – so that you can amplify your successes with each passing year.