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The second annual ASA conference on Corporate Water Footprinting just concluded in San Francisco, where experts in the fields of policy, technology, and corporate sustainability pertaining to the specific issue of water gathered to discuss the future of business in an increasingly water constrained world.
The conference opened with sobering statistics about the future of water as a result of the effects of climate change. Projections estimate that by 2025, two-thirds of the world population could live in water-scarce regions, and these “water-stressed” areas will only continue to expand in coming decades as a result of climate change. Speakers illustrated scenarios such as the melting of Himalayan snow cap, which would mean the loss of water sources for seven major rivers, affecting 40 percent of the world’s population. Water contamination is also a major issue in the developing world, where every 15 seconds a child dies of a water-related illness that is preventable in 80 percent of cases.
Although disheartening, these statistics were noted in order to frame the dialogue for what will need to be accomplished to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of the world’s population without access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2015 (compared to a 1990 baseline year). The UN CEO Water Mandate asks businesses to help achieve this goal as well as implement in sustainable water initiatives that will balance the impact of their operations and supply chains.
Representatives from major beverage corporations including PepsiCo, Diageo, and Nestle Waters presented their respective companies’ approaches to sustainability, presenting projects that aim to improve both their operational performance and demonstrate corporate citizenship. Many examined their supply chains to see where water use could be reduced, leading Diageo to rethink its recipes and PepsiCo to innovate a method of rice growing in India that reduces water use by 40 percent. A common theme was the recognition that “doing good means doing well,” resulting in corporate responsibility projects that move beyond philanthropy and towards empowering people with access to clean water sources that allow communities to flourish.
These efforts were not without their critics, and ASA did its best to invite all voices into this important conversation. Most notably, two groups – Food & Water Watch and The Council of Canadians– who had organized a counter-conference the year before to speak on a panel of experts about the human right to water. This thought-provoking session raised difficult questions about water ownership, water pricing, and water as a basic human right. More than just a concept of social justice, “water as a human right” has become a legal term and commitment that corporations like PepsiCo are beginning to embrace.
While it was challenging to come to any consensus on these topics, policy experts showed that it was even more difficult to pass the laws necessary to promote affordable, efficient, and enduring water systems at the various levels of government. Unfortunately, when it comes to water, many policies promote a “use it or lose it” mentality that runs counter to conservation. What panelists certainly agreed upon is that more education is necessary to raise the general awareness about where water comes from, and why it is so important to conserve it as the precious resource it is. Some educational materials on the topic can be found at the site for Worldwide Water Education.
Along with the need for strong and integrated policy, there was also a call for standardization of water footprinting methodologies. Currently, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is in the process of developing a standard to measure water footprint which due out in 2011. These types of calculations will be increasingly important as countries like France, Sweden, and Japan move towards requiring eco-labeling of products. The problem is that without a standardized and widely-accepted methodology on how to calculate the amount of “blue,” “green,” or “grey” water embedded in a product, the metrics lack context and therefore meaning.
High tech companies see not only necessity but also opportunity in investing in efficient water systems. Industry giants like GE and Intel presented strategies for sustainability including energy-saving technologies in their own operations and collaboration for sharing natural resources with local communities where they operate. Non-profits like venture-capital firm Imagine H20 and consulting group The Artemis Project work to identify the next big thing in “high-tech water”. Companies addressing efficient water treatment, storage, and use will surely be winners in an increasingly resource-constrained economy.
Although the general tone of the conference was positive, inspired, and cooperative, the main issues were nowhere near resolved. Discussions were insightful and well-informed, but served only to illustrate the major problems looming ahead if we fail to act. No doubt participants will meet again next year with more technologies, measuring and reporting tools, sustainability strategies, and stories of success.
Image source: UNEP Vital Water Graphics
Agnes Mazur is a sustainability enthusiast based in San Jose, California. After completing her studies in Political Science, Spanish, and French at San Jose State University, she worked as a reporter in her native city of Warsaw, Poland. She has since returned to the Bay Area where she contributes to various efforts in sustainability including organizing an urban gardening project, researching up-and-coming green businesses, and attending various conferences about environmental sustainability. She hopes her love of world travel, nature and innovation can help change the world.
Your comment regarding ths ISO process and the difficulty of defining a common process is the crucial issue here. This also applies even more so to several other ways of measuring environmental impact apart from (arguably) GHGs. The existing PAS 2050 and upcoming ISO 14067 standards do and will define common methods.