As a chemical compound, there are few that are simpler than water: two atoms of hydrogen joined to one of oxygen. But this simplicity conceals its human significance. Water is life, “the precarious molecular edge on which we survive”, in Barbara Kingsolver’s elegant phrase. Put more bluntly: without it we are dust.
On the face of it, talk of a looming water crisis might seem far-fetched. After all, Earth is blessed with an apparent abundance of water that has changed little over time.
Yet only 0.003% of Earth’s vast quantity of water is drinkable. What has changed, and changed seismically, is our population and our daily needs. The second half of the 20th century saw global population double. Far from stabilising at 7 billion people, this number will keep growing, possibly passing beyond 10 billion by 2100, according to the latest UN research.
However, even factoring in this enormous population growth, securing enough water to drink is only one dimension of the challenge we face. The much bigger issue, as this year’s World Water Week is exploring, is the water we need to eat.
Agriculture is by far the biggest user of water, accounting for almost 70% of all withdrawals, and up to 95% in developing countries. Producing 1 kilo of rice, for example, requires about 3,500 litres of water, 1 kilo of beef some 15,000 litres and the cotton for one T-shirt, 2,000 litres.
To meet demand, global agriculture over the past 30 years has in turn had to double food production. By 2030 our demand for food is predicted to increase by a further 50% (70% by 2050), according to the UN.
For a taste of what is to come, we need look no further than the droughts currently wreaking havoc in the United States. It seems that even during years with normal rainfall, using and overusing groundwater – the natural buffer in dry years – is leading to severe droughts. Over time, these are becoming increasingly frequent in their harshness - see my post from last week.
Meeting this challenge means producing more food of a higher quality using significantly less water. At one level, this is about smarter water management, and working with farmers and businesses to drive operational efficiency. For example, by reducing water withdrawal, using alternative water sources such as rainwater harvesting, and embedding water stewardship into business decisions.
At Nestlé, we have implemented 274 water-saving projects in our factories, conducted Water Resources Review programmes at more than 100 Nestlé sites and invested about CHF 28 million in water-saving and cleaning programmes during the year. In recognition of the company’s achievements and our strong involvement in the public policy dialogue on water management, Nestlé was awarded last year’s Stockholm Industry Water Prize.
We are a small water user – using withdrawals of less than 1.5 litres of freshwater per USD of our sales. I believe our actions will only have a very limited impact on the overall water situation. Other companies must be encouraged to do the same. And if they do, also deserve to be congratulated for showing commitment on this important issue. I am therefore very pleased to see recognition for genuine progress being given this year to PepsiCo.
But improving private sector performance is no substitute for collective action – in and around watersheds, in river basins and common underground aquifers. Many of the serious water stewardship challenges lie far beyond the farm and factory gate. This is why public-private partnerships such as the Water Resources Group, and platforms for international, multi-stakeholder dialogue such as World Water Week, play such a crucial role.
For this reason the event’s organisers, the Stockholm International Water Institute, deserve special praise for creating an opportunity for meaningful discussion beyond a “water-only” focus. As water sits at the nexus of so many global issues – from food security to economic growth, and energy supply to health – never has been there been a greater need for this conversation. We should not abandon the refrain until mankind has finally woken up to the fact that water is a limited resource and not an infinite gift from Mother Earth.