By Andrew Donoghue, BusinessGreen
In 20 years’ time, water availability will be 40 per cent below where it needs to be to support a growing global population. That is the stark warning from the 2030 Water Resources Group, a collection of industry experts, academics and NGOs which earlier this year produced a report detailing the scale of the looming water crisis.
The report, entitled Charting Our Water Future, states that global water requirements are set to grow from 4,500 billion metres cubed today to 6,900 billion metres cubed by 2030. Unfortunately, this demand is well beyond the capacity of existing reliable supplies, meaning that while huge investment in new water infrastructure will be essential, businesses and consumers will also have to start using water far more efficiently than they do at present.
The causes of the shortage are complex and numerous, but a growing world population with ambitions for a better standard of living is arguably the driving force behind the impending crisis. The majority, about 97 per cent, of the world’s water is salt water, and of the remaining three per cent which is fresh, two per cent is tied up in glaciers and the poles (for now). That leaves just one per cent to meet the needs of an increasingly resource-hungry planet. Add the shifting rainfall patterns that are likely to result from climate change and there is a recipe for disaster over the next few decades.
Water shortages are already causing suffering in the developing world through widespread droughts, while concerns over availability of supply are also driving up water prices for businesses and consumers in the developed world. The threat of stricter legislation around water use could also affect businesses already struggling to manage carbon emissions and other environmental pressures.
One answer to this looming crisis is to apply some of the same thinking adopted to combat rising carbon emissions. Events such as the recent World Water Day, and World Water Week held every September, aim to attract similar attention to the water issue which carbon has enjoyed of late.
Indeed, there are obvious links between global warming and water shortages. Unpredictable and severe weather systems contribute to flooding, which in turn leads to contamination of water supplies. Meanwhile, the increased risk of drought conditions also means that groundwater supplies are likely to deteriorate further in the coming years.
As with carbon, the degree to which companies are acting to develop more sustainable approaches to water use varies by industry sector. For example, food and drinks companies such as Nestle and PepsiCo are already taking steps to improve their water use credentials, but many other industries have little understanding of how water shortages could affect their businesses, despite operating facilities or supply chains that are entirely reliant on plentiful and reliable water supplies.
So what should the average UK business do to address water-related risks and develop a sustainable water strategy?
The first step is to accept there is a problem. Given the now frequent reports of flooding that periodically dominate the headlines, it is easy to regard droughts and water shortages as an overseas issue, but according to the Environment Agency, water resources are already under pressure in many parts of England and Wales. Recent figures from the agency suggest about 25 million people in England live in areas where there is less water available per person than Spain or Morocco, and the situation is expected to worsen over the next few decades, particularly in the densely populated South East.
The global population rise affecting water resources at a macro level will also be felt in the UK, according to the agency. By 2020, demand for water in the UK could rise by five per cent or 800 million litres every day. Forecasts of a population increase of about 15 million by 2051 will strain resources even further, the agency warns.
“Water is essential for life and vital to our economy,” says Ian Barker, head of water at the Environment Agency. “But climate change and population growth mean that in the future there may not be enough water in England and Wales unless we start planning and acting now.”
The Environment Agency released an action plan on 15 March, which sets out the scale of the problem and offers some potential solutions.
The most obvious solution and the area that is likely to form the centrepiece of any corporate water strategy is for all of us to use less water. Barker is convinced that meaningful cuts in water use will only be achieved through co-operation between industry groups, regulators and academia. “We need a joined-up approach to managing water supplies to prevent a water crisis in the future,” he warns.
However, there are steps individual businesses can take to help cut water use and also reduce water bills.
The Welsh Assembly recently launched a useful guide detailing how to develop a sustainable water use plan or water reduction programme, which advises that the first step should be to work out the scope of the plan – does it cover one facility or the entire company? – and then establish how progress should be measured.
“Water can fluctuate from month to month for a number of reasons – for example, during ‘quiet’ periods when the rate of production is lower than normal – so it can be difficult to establish the success of your water reduction programme,” the guide states. “You should use calculations such as ‘cubic meters of water used per tonne of product’ to work out the water use reduction independent of other factors. Sustainability specialist EnviroWise has a water monitoring tool which companies can download free of charge to help track us age.”
Other must-haves include identifying which personnel will be involved in the scheme, pulling together a timetable and setting clear targets. “You might also wish to set yourself targets for water reduction at various stages of the programme, for example, a 20 per cent reduction after six months, and a further 10 per cent reduction after 12 months,” the guide advises.
On a practical level, the simplest way to cut water use is to carry out a water audit and undertake repairs to fix leaks in existing plumbing and water systems. Similarly, overhauling heating and air-conditioning systems to make them more water efficient can also help cut water wastage.
New water-efficient toilets, waterless urinals and sinks which inject air into the flow from taps can also help cut water use, while growing numbers of green firms have also begun to install so-called “grey water systems” that collect rainfall and use it for non-drinking water purposes such as flushing toilets.
As with carbon saving initiatives, there is also a case for engaging staff to encourage them to save water. Hotels frequently use signs to encourage guests not to waste water through unnecessary washing of towels and linen and the same message can easily be adapted for other environments.
Water monitoring technology is another useful and increasingly popular tool. Although not yet as widely used as smart meters, experts believe real-time water meters could similarly help deliver deep cuts in water use. Utilities could then also develop water meter tariffs which reward consumers and businesses for sustainable use.
Existing water meters can also play a major role in cutting water use, according to the Welsh Assembly guide. “Often under-utilised, your water meter is one of the most important components in your fight against wasted water,” the guide states. “It can help you to identify and isolate leaks and overflows and monitor water use at particular times or by particular processes.”
Water might not be as plentiful as it once was, but luckily there is no shortage of advice and information for businesses that are serious about trying to conserve this vital resource.
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