Will water scarcity ever challenge carbon emissions as a business priority?
When it comes to exposure and coverage, carbon emissions reign supreme. But is it time water security became the central environmental issue? Leigh Stringer investigates
With news this week that the global councils on water and energy are joining forces to turn up the heat on the water-energy nexus issue, water scarcity is rising up corporate and government agendas.
However, the issue of emissions continues to lead as a priority, receiving year-round coverage and regular updates on how countries and businesses are tackling the issue. Meanwhile, water scarcity is relegated to an event focused issue, only hitting company and government websites, along with news channels, on specific dates.
For example, World Water Day, held last week, encouraged a barrage of events, news and initiatives focusing on the issue. But this sporadic publicity schedule is stopping the facts from reaching a wider audience, at least compared to carbon emissions reduction and waste.
Many companies, as reported by edie, are struggling to reduce, or even maintain, their water consumption. As production levels increase water consumption follows.
One example of this is the corporate sustainability report, which often focuses on emissions and energy consumption, with water and other environmental issues such as waste and biodiversity further down the pecking order.
Climate change is without doubt a major concern, one that, like water, is still not receiving the appropriate level of attention. However, when you weigh up the facts both are equally detrimental to the global population.
According to the Global Water Institute's 2013 report, Future Water (In)Security, the earth's water supply (both salt and freshwater) totals 1.4 billion km3, of which 97.5% is oceanic. The remaining 2.5% is fresh water, of which 70% is frozen, 30% is groundwater, and only 0.3% is accessible as surface water.
Of available renewable freshwater resources, about 54% is already appropriated by humanity for various uses - irrigated agriculture (70%), industry (22%), and domestic use (8%). A stark warning to us all, but it gets worse. Water withdrawals are also expected to increase by 50% in the developing countries and 18% in developed countries by 2025, due to both population and industrial growth.
Although agriculture holds the majority of global consumption, it could be argued that industry has more ability to tackle the issue in terms of spreading consumer awareness, investment and driving innovation.
And many are taking the lead, such as the beverage industry who seems to understand the impact a water scarce planet could have on its bottom line. Emissions and energy consumption must be vigorously dealt with and energy and water have been rightly highlighted as issues that must be tackled together due to each being heavily reliant on the other. And this is where the energy intensive industries must take note.
Speaking to edie, Anglo American's environmental technical manager Richard Garner, who specialises in water, said: "More needs to be done to raise public awareness of the critical issue of water security. Modern societies are utterly reliant on water and energy, and these two life essentials are interlinked. Energy production depends heavily on water; and approximately 8% of power generated worldwide is used for pumping, treating and transporting water.
"Yet there is a profound difference between the two: with energy, mankind has alternatives, with water we do not. While fossil fuels will continue to dominate power generation for the foreseeable future, other energy sources do exist.
"With water, although it covers more than 70% of the Earth's surface, much less than 1% of it is fit and available for human consumption. Fresh water is essential for human survival, and access to it is a fundamental human right. The preservation of resources must therefore be a high priority for governments, business and individuals - and indeed this is one of the Millennium Development Goals.
"We need to do all that we can in a systematic and planned manner with set goals and measurable outcomes. Industries need to work together to solve this issue. The alternative is not worth contemplating, that without water and energy, companies - like communities - can wither and die," he added.
Garner makes a point that many of us seem to skim over. If the lights went out the consequences would be catastrophic but, as he says, alternatives are available. If water ran out the population and planet would be, without question, doomed.
And water scarcity is no longer constrained to the developing countries. The CDP said, during World Water Day last week, that for an increasing number of European companies, water already has and will continue to have a profound effect on both their short term and long term profitability.
CDP Europe's managing director Steven Tebbe said: "Although public perception is that Europe generally has adequate water resources - water scarcity, including the depletion of water resources through pollution is actually an increasingly frequent phenomenon.
"Additionally, many European companies are reliant on supply chains located in water stressed or water scarce regions," he added.
Robert F Kennedy Jr said "Water will become the new oil of the 21st Century". If he is right, and the signs are certainly pointing towards this, industry must boost its efforts if we are to avoid a situation that is equal, if not more catastrophic, to running out of energy.
Leigh Stringer is edie's energy and sustainability editor