Sustainable water consumption is a major challenge for our increasing global population. Already now, a large share of population is suffering from water scarcity and water consumption is a main driver of ecosystem damage. The distribution of the resource and its consumption make it a critical resource in many regions.
We face a huge challenge, given that by 2030, approximately 47% of the world's population is expected to be living in areas of high water stress. At a national level, England, Scotland and Wales are projected to be in deficit by 800 million to 3 billion litres per day by 2050 (5–16% of total demand) and by 1.4 billion to 5 billion litres per day by 2080 (8-29% of the total demand).
Isn't it about time we took sustainable consumption seriously?
This growing pressure on water resources – from population and economic growth, climate change, pollution, and other challenges – has major impacts on our social, economic, and environmental well-being. Hosepipe bans, tankering of water to keep up with demand, applications to abstract additional water from already strained reservoir supplies, rescuing fish populations from depleted rivers, and the closure of an inland waterway: these are just a few of the steps taken in the UK in the past month.
The fact that water is running out is not new, but what is becoming increasingly urgent is that without action towards sustainable water practices, companies and investors around the world face imminent and significant risks. And yet, it is staggering to discover that of the world's 276 international river basins, 60 per cent lack cooperative management frameworks. This is serious, given the wide range of competing demands.
Without changes to business-as-usual, the future is grim. The effects are real and happening right now, right across the globe: in the last 20 years, 55% of China's rivers have disappeared due to industrial use. More than 70% of the western United States has been hit by drought resulting in a loss of approximately $2.7billion to California's economy. In February 2015, São Paulo ran out of water for four days. Within the next 15-20 years, the worsening water security situation risks triggering a global food crisis, with shortfalls of up to 30% in cereal production.
Business leaders have a responsibility to not only take action with sustainable water processes in operations, but also to impact the entire supply chain all the way to the customer. Beyond implementing sustainable water operations, companies and individuals need to work together to create a shift in purchasing behaviour helping consumers to favour water-sustainable products.
A huge opportunity exists for companies to save money by putting water management at the centre of their environmental strategy. Businesses can also learn important lessons from the challenges that energy has faced over recent years in terms of reducing use and waste; by using water more sustainably, they can operate more efficiently and effectively. Every business needs to ensure that it is doing all it can to use water as efficiently as possible during manufacturing processes, conserving and treating waste water, while continuously striving to reduce or avoid emissions that pollute the environment.
As a means to help inform consumers, many argue that quantifying water inputs, like nutritional and calorie labels on food items, will help to influence purchasing habits, encouraging consumers to resist highly water intensive products. It would incentivise product manufacturers to scale back unnecessary waste and awaken consumer consciousness about water insecurity. Understanding our water footprint may drive some consumers to make better informed decisions.
A water footprint looks at both direct and indirect water use:
Indirect water use refers to the water that is used to manufacture the goods that we consume or produce, and the services that we use, as well as all of the water that is made unusable by pollution or wasted by non-use. That includes all of the water used to grow the food that we eat eat, to produce the things we use in daily life - clothes, books and furniture - and the water needed to produce the energy we use.
While this indirect water is "invisible", we often use far more of it than we realise.
In Europe, for example, the average person directly consumes between 100-150 litres of water a day - as drinking water, for washing clothes, bathing and watering plants.
But each person also indirectly consumes anywhere between 1,500 and 10,000 litres of per day, depending on where they live and their consumption habits.
Broadly speaking, you can reduce your direct water footprint by:
- turning off the tap while brushing your teeth
- using water-saving toilets
- installing a water-saving shower head
- taking shorter showers
- only washing your clothes when necessary
- fixing household leaks
- using less water in the garden and when cleaning
- not disposing of medicines, paints or other pollutants down the sink.
When it comes to reducing your indirect water footprint, there are a number of different approaches you can take:
- eating less meat
- switching coffee for tea
- cutting down on sugar
- eating less processed food
- consuming more local produce
- buying quality, not quantity