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Our Insights 20 Mar 2015

10 Trends for 2015: Water Makes Waves

By Christina Wong

Flickr image by Bill Gracey

For over 25 years, companies have valued our ability to serve as their early warning system—to interpret emerging issues and trends in the sustainable development agenda and help them anticipate, understand, and respond to shifts in the business landscape. Our Ten Trends for 2015 series distills SustainAbility’s thinking over the past year and forecasts the issues that will shape the sustainable development agenda in 2015. This is the third in our series of blogs expanding upon these trends.

Earlier this year SustainAbility identified global water stress, water demands that exceed water availability, as one of ten key sustainability trends for 2015—both as a supply chain risk for companies as well as an issue of political and economic significance to countries. In the trends summary, we highlighted the World Economic Forum’s identification of “water crises” as one of the top ten issues of greatest concern to the global economy in 2015. Just a few months into 2015 and with World Water Day approaching this Sunday, March 22, it’s evident that the global water crisis is indeed a critical issue with extreme water stress in Sao Paulo, Brazil and across California as just two examples.

Brazil’s natural disaster monitoring service has warned that the Cantereria system, the main reservoir serving more than 9 million Sao Paulo citizens, could run dry in 2015. Late last year there were rumors that if conditions worsened, the government might warn residents to flee because there would not be enough water to drink or bathe. Officials have already begun haphazard rationing with intermittent pipe shutoffs. President Dilma Roussef announced plans to accelerate an $830 million project to pump water from another basin to replenish the failing reservoir. What remains to be seen is whether such vast infrastructure investments can be completed quickly enough to prevent turning Sao Paulo’s residents into water scarcity refugees, and if draining a second basin to support the dying Cantereria system is the right solution.

California, which is entering its fourth year of drought, may have had some relief from rains at the end of 2014, but is still struggling under conditions of abnormally low rainfall. January was the driest month in California since 1895 when record keeping started. Last year alone, tens of thousands of farm jobs were lost and a massive amount of farmland was fallowed at a cost of $2.2 billion. Ecological systems are suffering, too, with fish populations at record low levels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

With so much pressure on severely limited water supplies, governments and the private sector have realized that they can’t fix this problem on their own and are taking incremental steps to work together. In fact, some encouraging and important public/private partnerships have recently been announced around the world.

This past February a 14-member working group launched the India Water Tool 2.0, the second iteration of a free online water tool designed to help companies, government agencies, civil society organizations and other stakeholders assess water risks at a granular level. 54 percent of India is currently under water stress, putting almost 600 million people at higher risk of water supply disruptions. The collaboration, which was brought together by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, included knowledge partners like the World Resources Institute (WRI) and Skoll Global Threats Foundation along with ten companies including PepsiCo, BASF, Monsanto, and Nestlé. Given the water data gaps that exist in many countries, this tool is a great example of how the public and private sector can collaborate to develop better water information resources for stronger analysis and ultimately, better water allocation and conservation decisions.

Through a public/private partnership campaign led by CERES called Connect the Drops, companies including General Mills, Gap Inc., Levi Strauss Co., Coca-Cola and others have joined together to press California lawmakers and residents towards a more urgent response to water scarcity. Companies signed a declaration stating that now is the time for “fresh thinking, shared purpose and bold solutions” with the business community leading the way. And yet, while the partnership includes some great examples of companies working to maximize water efficiency, truly bold changes are yet to be realized. We hope to see constructive outcomes from this coalition, but the bigger question is, with the clock ticking, do residents and businesses of California have the time to wait?

We are making significant strides to better understand the water stress issue through tools like the India Water Tool 2.0, and through Connect the Drops and its members’ actions. Ultimately, though, we are pumping unsustainable amounts of water from basins and groundwater sources in order to keep agriculture and business humming at the same levels. At some point soon, companies, governments, and citizens will be confronted with stressed aquifers and ecosystems that can no longer handle the pressure, and we’ll be forced to rectify the overuse of this undervalued, but necessary resource. Unfortunately for those in water stressed regions, the real change will probably happen when no water remains.

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