Water, Water, Everywhere?

Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink. When Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote these famous words in 1798, he was speaking of the sea, but today these words could just as easily be a prescient description of the current state of global water shortage.

In today’s world, where a plethora of Deer Park, Dasani and Fiji water bottles are on sale at Safeway or sitting around the office, it can be hard to imagine a shortage of water. Our daily actions reflect this somewhat cavalier attitude towards water usage: we run the water full blast while washing dishes, brushing our teeth, or shaving. After all, why should we care about the amount of water we use when roughly 70% of the earth is covered in water? Unfortunately, the reality is that a mere 3% of available water is suitable for the daily activities that sustain human life. The day when we globally consume more than naturally-available resources has come and gone, and the water crunch is coming. The only remaining question /s are how soon and what we are going to do about it?

The issue, as always, boils down to supply and demand. As populations and economies have grown at exponential rates, the demand for water has increased in parallel. Many countries are extracting groundwater faster than it can be replenished. According to the World Economic Forum Water Initiative, Mexico is exceeding its groundwater supplies by 20%, China by 25% and India by 56%. By 2030, the shortfall between supply and demand for water could be as high as 40%, and two out of three people will likely live in an area of high water stress.

Water stress is not just an issue for developing countries or rural areas, as illustrated by the experiences of Atlanta, Georgia.  Atlanta is the largest city in the U.S. not located near a body of water; the closest major water source, Lake Lanier, lies 40 miles northeast. In the 1950s, when the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the lake, Atlanta refused to contribute financing because it was not clear that the city would ever need to draw additional water. By 1989, Atlanta was drawing 20% of Lanier’s output; today Atlanta obtains three-quarters of its water from the source. This increasing demand on Lake Lanier, combined with Atlanta’s initial refusal to contribute funds, has led to a tri-state water dispute with other Lanier recipients Florida and Alabama.

Demands on water come from the public and private sectors, population growth, economic development and urbanization. Manufacturing and the energy industry in particular require vast quantities of water. Demand for water in energy and industrial use is projected to rise sharply between 2000 and 2030, increasing by 56% in Latin America, 63% in West Asia, 65% in Africa and 78% in Asia. The utility sector is heavily dependent on water, for extraction and refinement, ethanol and hydrogen production, hydropower and cooling processes. Despite this reliance, the industry has not adjusted for the overdrawn water resources. Recent droughts in Europe have caused several nuclear facilities to shut down to prevent overheating when they could no longer draw sufficient quantities of river water for cooling procedures. And while the alarms over the energy crisis have died down over the last several years, largely due to the expansion of American shale gas, the process for extracting natural gas — hydraulic fracturing — requires between 2 and 4 million gallons of water per well.

With demand increasing, is there any way to increase supply from the remaining 93% of naturally-occurring water? Not on a large scale with current technology. Desalination and treatment processes require large amounts of energy, making long-term, large-scale deployment of these processes unsustainable solutions. This issue is compounded by the fact that water is essential to producing the energy that would be used to process unusable water.

So, if demand is increasing and supply is stagnant, how do we avoid surpassing what our natural resources can bear?

We have to start by understand our own water usage.

Just as many individuals have altered their energy behavior, we should now begin finding efficiencies to reduce water consumption in our daily routines — reduce the water flow while washing dishes or turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth.

However, as important as individual awareness and responsibility are, the biggest impact will come from companies within water-heavy industries, particularly those who identified water as a substantial risk in the Carbon Disclosure Project. According to the 2011 Carbon Disclosure Project Water Disclosure Global Report, 59% of responding corporations identified water as a substantial risk to their business. But how many companies have actually developed and implemented a water strategy?

It turns out that a handful already have. Food and beverage companies are currently most active in developing water management strategies because their success is directly dependent upon the quality and availability of water. Coca-Cola set a goal to improve water efficiency by 20% by 2012 compared to a 2004 baseline.  To date, the company is halfway to their reduction goal.  With over 900 bottling plants globally, these efforts stand to have a significant impact. H.J. Heinz, dependent on a healthy agricultural sector, has also made water a priority. By fiscal year 2009, Heinz had reduced water intensity by 15.7% against a 2005 baseline, just shy of their efficiency goal

Outside of the food and beverage industry, hotel giant , Marriott ® International has reduced annual water consumption by almost 23%, roughly 11.3 million m3/year.

These three Fortune 500 companies have successfully identified the growing threat of water shortages, developed a strategy and implemented effective water management practices. The value these companies gain is not simply a feel-good story for consumers; rather, these companies have mitigated a serious risk and while saving untold millions in water and energy costs associated with the transportation and treatment of water.

Unfortunately there are very few companies visibly working to assess and reduce total water consumption, indicating a global exposure to water shortage. As the new economies continue to develop, populations continue to grow, and manufacturing and utilities industries struggle to keep up with corresponding demand, the water crunch grows nearer — and we need to be ready for it.