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Proof Points

Are our minds water-logged?

Water shortages are part of the new normal. How can companies step up to help?

In California, every day comes with a reminder — take nothing for granted. Last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown implemented water restrictions for the first time in the state. Water is on the top of the mind for Californians today, with wells going dry across the state.

But California isn’t alone as concern about water issues is on the rise globally. Research shows significant increases in perceived seriousness of water scarcity over the last year, according to GlobeScan’s latest international RADAR survey.

In this edition of Proof Points, we take a look at what’s driving these perceptions in developing economies, and what local communities can do to put in place sustainable and long-term solutions to secure future access to safe water and sanitation.

Economic inequality is a major barrier to fresh water access. In developing nations, rapid expansion can put a lot of stress on the fresh water supply if it is unable to keep pace with development of urban centers. As countries struggle to match the pace of more developed nations, people in informal settlements and poorer neighborhoods can become further isolated as new infrastructure diverts water away from their regions.

Regardless of the level of development occurring in developing countries, concern over water shortages is growing in every country surveyed except China. Interestingly, China was the only country with decreased concern over water shortages since 2014, due in part to a 13 percent increase in respondents saying that it was “not a very serious problem.”

Seriousness of water shortages

Location can play a significant role in driving these perceptions. In urban areas, where most respondents are, the easy access to clean tap water — and recent government activities to improve it — mean that few people really understand the dire situation of water shortages. However, in more rural areas there may be a different story.

A closer look at the research suggests that such location-based perceptions are mirrored globally. Varying levels of development can have significant effects on the ways people perceive water shortages.

The disparities highlighted between developed and developing regions are felt on a larger scale, as countries undergoing rapid economic growth are also experiencing stress on a number of resources, including water. Similar to the respondents in urban Chinese centers, those in more developed nations may not experience a water shortage as acutely as their counterparts in developing economies.

Using OECD membership status as a proxy for more developed economies supports this theory. In 2015, respondents in less-developed, non-OECD countries were significantly more likely to perceive water shortages as a “very serious problem” than those in OECD countries.

OECD vs. non-OECD

Data over the last several years shows that this is not an anomaly, as water concern frequently registers higher among less-developed, non-OECD countries than OECD members.

Concern about water shortages is on the rise globally and is rebounding from a general decline, marking a change in attitudes over the last year. In geographies where situations are most dire, such as in developing countries, organizations such as seek to break down barriers to accessing safe water and sanitation for all. Currently, its focus is to work with local and national governments, financial institutions and community groups.

water shortages

With corporations increasingly taking a leadership role in environmental and community stewardship, we looked at how companies might play a role in helping to break down these barriers. Communities benefit most from programs that foster financial independence and inclusion as well as support systems for improved water access.

Rather than one-off donations of equipment or philanthropy, sponsoring initiatives that help communities establish their own infrastructure, or connect to existing infrastructure through micro-finance, has shown to be sustainable and scalable.

Water and sanitation financing that involves public-private partnerships to enable local improvements in water access can contribute to the vitality and sustainability of communities and ecosystems. Beyond their immediate communities, companies can invest in the sustainability of their key markets and value chain networks by rebuilding water infrastructure in developing regions, where shortages are felt more seriously.

Outside of these community investments, some companies are taking steps to curb their own water footprint, and are driving awareness among consumers to do the same. Organizations such as IKEA and PepsiCo are already doing great work in managing their water footprint, and we know that many others are working to do the same. Leadership companies such as these inspire hope in the face of water shortages, and many more people are paying attention. 

However, it is ironic that we are seeing the reverse of this situation in places such as California, one of the wealthiest regions in the world. Emergency drought regulations and water restrictions there are hitting urban users the hardest. While urban centers use only 20 percent of the water, agricultural companies in rural areas with much higher water consumption are exempt from these restrictions. 

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