Water stress and scarcity. It truly is a global issue and one that is already affecting millions of people all over the world, with every continent impacted in some way by the crisis.
Over the last 100 years, water usage and consumption has been growing globally at over twice the rate of population increase, UN Water figures show – and an increasing number of regions around the world are now approaching the limit at which water resources can be delivered in a sustainable way… particularly in arid places.
The issue is a complex one and there are different sources of pressure affecting water availability, everything from population growth and increased urbanisation to climate change, extreme weather events, water mismanagement and ageing infrastructure.
Each region has its own water-related issues to deal with, as well, which means there is no one size fits all approach to solving this particular climate emergency… and collaborative efforts will be required in order to address the situation effectively, with governments, non-government organisations, businesses, non-profits and individuals alike all having to come together to reduce their own water footprints now and well into the future.
What is water neutrality?
One strategy that could prove highly effective is the concept of water neutrality, a relatively new idea very similar to the concept of carbon neutrality, where any CO2 released into the atmosphere is balanced by an equivalent amount being removed.
Going water neutral means that the water footprint of any and all activities are reduced as far as is practicably possible, with the negative externalities of the remainder then offset.
In some instances, it will be possible to go completely water neutral, such as by using water recycling and producing zero waste. In this case, the existing water footprint would be entirely negated. However, there are some activities where this would be impossible, such as in agriculture where water usage and consumption is essential.
Under these circumstances, water usage cannot be brought to zero, but water neutrality can still be achieved by ensuring that the negative socioeconomic and environmental externalities are reduced as far as is possible, with any remaining impacts then fully compensated for by investing in sustainable water usage.
What could businesses achieve?
It’s likely that big corporations and larger businesses will be expected to account for their water footprints in the future, being transparent about the total volumes used either directly or indirectly to run operations.
In order to do this, you would need to review direct water usage (that used for manufacturing or other supporting activities), as well as indirect water usage (that used across your entire supply chain).
Once you have a greater understanding of your water consumption habits, you can then take steps to reduce the amount you use and find more sustainable alternatives where appropriate.
For example, you could take more responsibility for reducing operational water usage by only using the very best technology available, or using your influence over your suppliers to encourage them to reduce their own operational consumption. Failing that, you could even consider switching water supplier to different suppliers if they have a smaller water footprint.
Product design and manufacture is another area where businesses could focus their attention in order to become water neutral, so that less water is used over the entire lifecycle of a product, and/or less water is polluted.
And don’t forget to prioritise your residual water footprint, either, the amount of water remaining after you’ve done as much as you can to reduce your operational water footprint.
This means making reasonable investments in either supporting or establishing projects that aim to deliver sustainable, efficient and equitable use of water in the catchment where your residual water footprint is located.
Which brands are going water neutral?
If water neutrality is a long-term sustainable goal for your business, you’ll find yourself in excellent company, with some big-name brands also making similar pledges in recent months.
The big tech company announced back in September 2020 that it would restore more water than it consumes on a global basis come the year 2030. It will achieve this in two ways – by reducing water usage intensity and replenishing water in the water-stressed regions in which it operates.
Social media platform Facebook pledged last year that it would be water positive by 2030, with more water restored than is consumed.
It has been investing in water restoration projects in high water stress watersheds where it operates, shoring up resources at basin level to address water stress and scarcity, as well as modernising irrigation systems, improving water quality and providing access to water for people.
Google has set itself a water stewardship target to replenish more water than is consumed by 2030, supporting water security in communities where it operates. This means the company will replenish 120 per cent of the water consumed on average across its offices and data centres.
It has three main areas of focus: enhancing resource management and stewardship across office campuses and data centres, replenishing water use and improving watershed health and ecosystems in water-stressed areas. It will also share technology and tools to help predict, prevent and recover from water stress.
BP has set itself the goal of becoming water positive by 2035, achieving this by being more water efficient in operational freshwater use and effluent management, as well as collaborating with others to replenish resources in its stressed and scarce catchment areas.
Based on analysis using the World Resources Institute Aqueduct Global Water Risk Atlas, four out of 24 of its major operating sites were in regions facing high or extremely high water stress in 2020, while an additional four were in areas of medium to high water stress.