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26 March 2011

Water, Water, Everywhere, nor any Drop to Drink

Tag(s): Environment

                           “Water, water, everywhere , And all the boards did shrink,

Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.”

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge,1798

There are many threats to humanity over the coming decades from shortages of food and energy, rising temperatures, increasing populations, urbanisation, and so on. But one of the most serious is the shortage of fresh clean water.  Two thirds of the world’s people are expected to live in water-stressed conditions by 2025 and the world could surpass its freshwater limits by 2050. Businesses rely on freshwater resources in their supply chain, operations and in the use of their products. Recent humanitarian catastrophes, such as the Rwandan Genocide or the war in Sudanese Darfur, have been linked back to water conflicts. [i]The human right to fresh water has been acknowledged by the United Nations which has led civil society organisations to continue to press businesses for a response to this issue. Future regulatory risks will have direct impacts on costs and investors and other stakeholders are increasingly looking to business to disclose better information on the nature and extent of water related risks and their plans to manage them.[ii]

Fresh water is naturally occurring water on the Earth's surface in rivers and streams, lakes and  ponds, bogs and swamps, and underground in streams and aquifers. Fresh water has low concentrations of dissolved salts and other solids.  The source of nearly all fresh water is precipitation from the atmosphere in the form of mist, rain and snow. This contains materials dissolved from the atmosphere and from the sea and land over which the rain bearing clouds have travelled. In industrialised areas rain is often acidic because of dissolved oxides of sulphur and nitrogen formed from burning of fossil fuels in factories, automobiles, trains and aircraft and from the emissions of industry. In extreme cases this acid rain results in pollution of lakes and rivers in parts of Europe and the United States.

In coastal areas fresh water may contain significant concentrations of salts derived from the sea if windy conditions have lifted drops of seawater into the rain-bearing clouds. This can lead to elevated concentrations of sodium, chloride, magnesium and sulphate as well as many other compounds. In areas with impoverished or dusty soils, particularly desert areas, rain bearing winds can pick up dust and sand, and this can be deposited elsewhere in precipitation or contaminate the freshwater flow.

Water is a critical issue for the survival of all living organisms. Some can use salt water but many organisms including the great majority of higher plants and most mammals must have access to fresh water to live.  Out of all the water on Earth only 2.75% is fresh water, including 2.05% frozen in glaciers, 0.68% as groundwater and 0.011% of it as surface water in lakes and rivers.  Freshwater lakes, most notably Lake Baikal in Russia and the Great Lakes in North America, contain seven-eighths of this fresh surface water. Swamps have most of the balance with only a small amount in rivers. The atmosphere contains 0.04% water.

Fresh water is an important natural resource necessary for the survival of all ecosystems. The use of water by humans for activities such as irrigation and industrial applications can have adverse impacts on down-stream ecosystems. Chemical contamination of fresh water can also seriously damage eco-systems.

Changing landscape for the use of agriculture has a great effect on the flow of fresh water. The removal of trees and soils changes the flow of fresh water in the local environment and affects the cycle of fresh water. Consequently fresh water is stored in the soil which can benefit agriculture. However, since agriculture is the human activity that consumes the most fresh water, this can put a severe strain on local freshwater resources resulting in the destruction of local ecosystems. In Australia, excessive abstraction of fresh water for intensive irrigation activities has caused 33% of the land area to be at risk of salination.

Fresh water is a renewable and changeable, but limited natural resource. Fresh water can only be renewed through the process of the water cycle, where water from seas, lakes, rivers, and dams evaporates, forms clouds, and returns to water sources as precipitation. However, if more fresh water is consumed through human activities than is restored by nature, the result is that the quantity of fresh water available in lakes, rivers, dams and underground waters is reduced which can cause serious damage to the surrounding environment. Desalinisation is an energy intensive process that contributes a tiny fraction of “fresh water” to the total and can effectively be ignored in this discussion. For all intents and purposes God is not making any more fresh water and humans are using more and more of it.

There are many causes of the apparent decrease in our fresh water supply. Principal amongst these is the increase in population through increasing life expectancy, the increase in per capita water use and the desire of many people to live in warm climates that have naturally low levels of fresh water resources. Climate changeis also likely to change the availability and distribution of fresh water across the earth.

According to Larry West "If global warming continues to melt glaciers in the Polar Regions, as expected, the supply of fresh water may actually decrease. First, fresh water from the melting glaciers will mingle with salt water in the oceans and become too salty to drink. Second, the increased ocean volume will cause sea levels to rise, contaminating freshwater sources along coastal regions with seawater”.[iii] 

Water stewardship, like reducing carbon omissions, requires a coordinated effort. But unlike carbon emissions, because water is regarded as a “common good” the price remains well below its true value. It is therefore unlikely that a single market for offsetting will develop, but rather multi-stakeholder action at global, regional and local levels to ensure good water stewardship.[iv]

There is some organised action on water.

·         UN CEO Water Mandate- a public private partnership launched in 2007, to help companies develop, implement and disclose water policies and practices. Endorsed by over 75 global companies. The CEO Water Mandate seeks to build an international movement of committed companies, both leaders and learners. In this spirit, the initiative is open to companies of all sizes and from all sectors, and from all parts of the world. The initiative requires the endorsement of a company’s Chief Executive Officer, or equivalent.
Endorsing companies are required to report annually on their implementation progress and signatories have been delisted for failing to do this.

·         Alliance for Water Stewardship- multi-stakeholder platform seeking to develop indicators for a water stewardship certification programme.  The AWS intends to create a programme that recognises and rewards water users and managers who take major steps to minimise the impacts of their water use and management. 

The Water Footprint Network- over 100 partners working to improve the methodology for working out the water footprint of a business and its impact.  Some examples of water footprint include the fact that on average production of one kilogramme of beef requires 16 thousand litres of water. On average to produce one cup of coffee we need 140 litres of water. The water footprint of China is about 700 cubic metres per year per capita. Only about 7% of the Chinese water footprint falls outside China. Japan with a footprint of 1150 cubic metres per year per capita, has about 65% of its total water footprint outside the borders of the country.  The USA water footprint is 2500 cubic metres per year per capita.

·         The International Organisation for Standardisation – working on an ISO for water footprints. Due for release in 2011. Currently at the stage of a Preliminary Work Item (PWI), ISO 14046, Water footprint – Requirements and guidelines, would complement existing standards on life cycle assessment (LCA) and on-going work on carbon footprint metrics by ISO technical committee ISO/TC 207, Environmental management. It would also take into account the ISO 14064 standards on the accounting and verification of greenhouse gases (GHG).



The problem is not only the limited availability of fresh water but also its cleanliness. More than a billion people lack clean water leading to widespread disease which kills millions of children each year. What is needed is better filtration but traditional filters work by forcing water through pores to weed out bacteria. That, of course, requires power but new filters have been developed by Stanford University researchers that kill the bugs rather than screening them out. [v] If mankind is going to survive in ever greater numbers but with scarce and limited resources it must learn to use those resources more wisely and efficiently.

[i].Tulloch, James (2009). "Water Conflicts: Fight or Flight?

[ii]Non-Executives Issue 2 2010- PriceWaterhouse LLP

[iii]Larry West - Water Now More Valuable Than Oil?"
[iv]Non-Executives Issue 2 2010- PriceWaterhouse LLP
[v]Silver threads of life” The Economist, October 23rd, 2010

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