More than half a billion people today lack access to clean water, and with climate change, water pollution and booming population growth, pressures on limited water supplies are ratcheting up.
Tackling the water crisis can feel like an uphill battle in the United States, with one environmental roll back after another proposed by the Trump administration. But all is not doom and gloom. Companies and investors are moving forward, taking steps to value water for its true worth and working with suppliers, farmers and local communities to preserve water supplies. Innovation is also happening at the municipal level.
On World Water Day 2017, here are six positive trends that give me hope:
1) Global Companies are Embracing Sustainable Development Goals
Launched by the United Nations in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include a target to ensure everyone has access to safe water by 2030. Big companies that use a lot of water around the world, such as BASF, Coca-Cola, Diageo, Novozymes and Unilever are integrating these water goals into their sustainability plans. Diageo, the company that brings you Guinness, for example, released an ambitious plan that includes a 50 percent improvement in water use efficiency and 100 percent recycling of wastewater. It’s also developing community projects in water stressed areas where its production sites are located and has thus far provided 600,000 more people with access to safe drinking water.
These companies are recognizing that to ensure long-term water supplies for their business, they must give water back to the communities where they operate.
2) The World’s Biggest Water User is Making Strides
That’s agriculture, of course. From farm to factory, producing food is the most water intensive business on earth. More than 70 percent of the world’s freshwater is in fact used to irrigate crops and raise livestock. Through their massive purchasing power, the companies that buy, process and sell the food we eat have the power to raise the bar for sustainable water use in farming. And more of the largest food companies – from PepsiCo to Campbell’s Soup to Driscoll’s are starting to do just that, by evaluating their growing regions most at risk for water scarcity, and developing plans and targets for working with farmers to conserve water resources.
Last fall, in fact, a number of food companies – including Hain Celestial, Hormel Foods, PepsiCo and WhiteWave Foods – worked with Ceres and the World Wildlife Fund to set new commitments to address water risks as part of the AgWater Challenge.
Among the commitments, PepsiCo is working with its agricultural suppliers to improve the water efficiency of its direct agricultural supply chain by 15 percent by 2025 (compared to 2015) in high water risk sourcing areas, including India and Mexico. And Hormel Foods is developing a the first comprehensive water stewardship policy for a meat company, setting water management expectations that go beyond regulatory compliance for its major suppliers, contract animal growers and feed suppliers.
3) Companies in the West are ‘Walking their Talk’ on Water Conservation
Increasingly, companies operating in water-stressed regions are proactively taking action to conserve and protect water sources. Kellogg’s, Gap, and Genentech are among a growing cadre of companies engaging with California policymakers on the urgency for stronger water management policies in this drought-prone state. Even in the era of Trump, companies are seeing it in their collective interest to help get water policy right.
Many of these same companies are also using innovation to reduce their water consumption, such as by adopting large-scale water reuse practices. Or some, like General Mills and Sierra Nevada, are collaborating with stakeholders at the local, watershed level on the development of groundwater management plans, helping to implement California’s new groundwater law. These companies understand that staying in business over the long-term will require a fundamental shift in how they use water.
4) Cities are Driving Innovation
The tragedy in Flint, Michigan and widespread concerns about lead contamination in drinking water are grabbing news headlines, and rightfully so. Aging infrastructure leaves many around the U. S. vulnerable to tap water with high lead levels. It is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed by government leaders.
Yet at the same time, many cities are deploying innovative solutions to protect and preserve water resources. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, one of the first public agencies to remove lead pipes from its water infrastructure decades ago, remains on the cutting edge, implementing numerous water reuse and reclamation projects as well as innovative wastewater and storm water management projects.
In Philadelphia and Syracuse, New York, local water officials are implementing storm water management programs that use green infrastructure to help capture runoff and protect their water supply. Big Spring and Wichita Falls in Texas have developed potable reuse -- “toilet to tap” -- facilities that clean wastewater to drinking water quality. In Washington, D.C., local officials are producing renewable power from its wastewater by "pressure cooking" the solids left over at the end of the wastewater treatment process.
5) Wall Street is Becoming Water Aware
Devastating droughts in California, Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere, coupled with global trends of groundwater depletion and water quality degradation are motivating investors to become more water aware. Many are increasingly recognizing that the global water crisis is not only a social, but an economic, concern, and they’re moving their money to help tackle the crisis.
In little more than one year, for example, Ceres’ network of institutional investors focused on water has grown eight-fold, from a group of 10 investors managing $1 trillion in assets, to 80 investors with some $19 trillion in assets.
Today’s announcement by Ceres partner ACTIAM, a European asset manager with approximately $56 billion in assets, is an example of what investors are doing to lift all boats on water issues. ACTIAM has pledged to achieve a water neutral portfolio by 2030, meaning that it expects the companies in its investment portfolio to develop plans to consume no more water than nature can replenish and cause no more pollution than is acceptable for the health of humans and ecosystems.
6) Science-Based Water Reduction Targets are Picking Up Steam
If you’re curious whether companies’ water neutrality goals can actually result in meaningful water conservation, a consortium of NGOs, including the World Resources Institute (WRI), CDP and WWF have been working with companies on that score. They’re taking companies’ water neutrality, or balance goals, and helping them set science-based water reduction targets that reduce business risks while serving communities’ water needs. It’s the next wave of science-based targets for companies, following the campaign for science-based GHG emissions targets.
The World Resources Institute, for example, has been working with Mars Inc. to develop an approach for setting water targets informed by science, and measuring impacts and tracking performance over time. These targets take into account the latest science on the global carbon budget, water stress and other ecological limits.