Water scarcity is a global problem — businesses can make a difference with local solutions

Ecolab
How can companies best focus on water issues? Empowering the facility level is key.

This article is sponsored by Ecolab.

Today, we are at a crossroads for water. The United Nations predicts that unless we don’t change course, the world will see a 40 percent water deficit by 2030. That’s not just a problem, it’s a looming crisis. Water scarcity is consistently ranked high on the World Economic Forum’s list of global risks. And many businesses are feeling it already.

But there’s good news: The business sector can reduce water usage significantly. 

At Ecolab, we’ve seen the power of effective water management first hand. We manage 1.1 trillion gallons of water annually. Just last year, we helped our customers save 188 billion gallons, equivalent to the annual drinking water needs of 650 million people. And we’re aiming for 300 billion gallons — enough for 1 billion people — by 2030.

So, what should corporations know about reducing their water usage and doing their part in avoiding a global water crunch? Here are some things we’ve learned:

All water is local

Like climate change, water scarcity is a global problem. But while one ton of CO2 emitted anywhere ends up warming the whole planet, a gallon of water used or saved in one area isn’t felt elsewhere.

When it comes to water, every place is different. Are you by a river, lake or coastline? What are the prevailing weather conditions? Is your location prone to drought, flooding or both? Is the soil hard, porous or polluted? The combinations of factors are endless.

That’s why a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. Stopping water scarcity will take a patchwork of local, context-based solutions. London, Los Angeles and Lahore are each water-stressed but it doesn’t take a hydrologist to see that they are also very different. What works in one area — whether it’s cleaning up pollution, protecting aquifers or reusing municipal wastewater for industrial purposes – doesn’t automatically work in another.

Water scarcity can’t be solved without business

Today, according to UNESCO, corporations use 20 percent of all water globally. But that number obscures the real story. In high-income countries, industry is the largest water user, taking up 40 percent of all water and up to 59 percent in some places. As low-income countries industrialize, their water use is evolving in the same direction.

In other words: Without tackling industry’s share, it is impossible to stop the looming water crisis. 

That is one reason why most corporations have water reduction goals. (Another reason is cost — using water is expensive.) But today, many companies aren’t achieving those goals. Since 2011, corporate water usage has fallen only by 10 percent. In recent years, it has increased slightly.

Facilities are key

What explains that discrepancy? It’s what we call the "execution gap." From surveys Ecolab and GreenBiz conducted in 2017 and 2019, we know that company-wide water goals don’t necessarily result in meaningful action. While 75 percent of companies have water goals, 82 percent don’t have the tools or expertise to achieve them. And even though 88 percent of companies say they plan to tackle water issues in the next three years, only half of that number have a plan to do it.

Action at the facility level is key to closing the execution gap. Because all water is local, meaningful water use reductions must happen at individual facilities sites and be context-based — tailored to each site’s specific set of local circumstances. Those can be as simple as fixing leaks and determining who is responsible for water issues at the facility, or as complex as building water resource management procedures with all stakeholders in the surrounding basin.

If a company does this at enough facilities, it will start saving enough water in the aggregate to make its water reduction targets and lower its impact on communities and natural habitats. It can save money, boost productivity and efficiency, improve its reputation and safeguard its license to operate in a water-scarce world.   

We have the tools to do it

Ecolab works at thousands of industrial facilities each year. We have seen the execution gap many times, and we’ve learned to spot common pitfalls and obstacles. That’s why we developed the Ecolab Smart Water Navigator, a free online tool designed to help companies build smart water management practices at the facility level.

We built it in collaboration with ESG analysis provider S&P Trucost, an advisory panel of leading global companies and experts from The Pacific Institute and the World Resources Institute (WRI). It’s open to any company, in any line of business, anywhere in the world. You don’t have to be an Ecolab customer to use it.

Here’s how it works:

  • Take the assessment: The Ecolab Smart Water Navigator gauges any facility’s water management using a plain-language, 13-question online assessment.
  • Learn your water-maturity level: Based on the assessment, each facility is placed on the Water Maturity Curve, which visualizes the state of its water acumen. A facility at the beginning of the journey is "Untapped," one that has developed fully mature, circular water management is "Water-smart."
  • Get the guide: The Ecolab Smart Water Navigator then generates a tailored guide for each facility, based on its industry, location and water maturity level, that provides a series of practical actions steps.
  • Move to the next level: Using the guide, you can start improving your water management practices. Once you’ve taken the recommended steps, you take the assessment again and learn how you’ve improved your Water Maturity level. Step by step, you can move each facility up the curve and develop smart, circular water management practices that are also good for the bottom line.  

The Water Maturity Curve visualizes the state of a facility’s water management practices in four easy-to-understand levels. Source: Ecolab.

Of course, we know that industry by itself can’t solve the whole problem. With our combined effort, we can do a lot to bend the trend line, but we’ll still need governments and civil society groups to do their part. However, we shouldn’t wait for them. 

The knowledge and technology to make a significant difference are already available. Now is the time. If we start building smart, circular solutions today, facility by facility, private business can take the lead in ensuring a world with enough affordable clean water for all.