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Water: Treasure It, Measure It, Map It

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and a group of member companies created a tool in 2007 to help companies quantify their water use and identify water risks, with the support of global organizations which maintain water and sanitation databases.

We launched the Global Water Tool into the public domain at World Water Week in Stockholm with a parody of the fight between good and evil in the movie "Star Wars," with the sincere hope that companies would find it, use it and take action.

Since the launch, the Global Water Tool has been downloaded more than 10,000 times, used by more than 300 companies to map their water risks with local conditions and take action on water.  It is recognized by global reporting and water organizations as the standard for water measurement and risk identification. 

The tool is free on the WBCSD website and does not require registration to use because we want even the shyest of companies to use it. CH2M HILL led the effort to develop and maintain the tool with the participation of 22 other WBCSD member companies.

Now it’s time for the sequel. We’re developing a more powerful tool with fresh and expanded datasets that employ new technology and modules for specific challenges.  We’re creating this tool because while we’re winning some battles on water, old enemies persist and new ones are gaining power:

Water Supply -- An Enemy Weakened

The WHO/UNICEF joint monitoring report on Progress on Sanitation and Drinking Water was recently issued for progress through 2008. It found 5.9 billion people, or 87 percent of the world’s population, and 84 percent of the population living in the developing world now use drinking water from safer, improved sources. At current trends the world will meet or even exceed the water Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target to “halve, by 2015 the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.” 

In China, 89 percent of the population of 1.3 billion has access to drinking water from improved sources, up from 67 percent in 1990.  In India, 88 percent of the population of 1.2 billion has access, as compared to 72 percent in 1990.  Of course, this progress leaves far too many people still without access to improved water supply, but the progress made should encourage us that widespread supply can be achieved.

Sanitation - An Old Enemy Persists

The progress on sanitation was not as good with 2.6 billion people or 39 percent of the world’s population currently living without access to improved sanitation.  At current rates of progress the world will miss the MDG sanitation target by almost 1 billion people.  Inadequate sanitation has significant health impacts on people who are our customers, our supply chains, our employees and their families.

Population Growth -- A Certainty

Predicted population growth to 9 billion people by 2050 will decrease fresh water availability and strain existing water supply and sanitation systems.  The population growth is predicted to be in developing countries which will also be industrializing as they improve their living standards.  This will be a double demand stress on fresh water supply.

Water Variability -- Uncertainty is Certain

Steady state is out of date on water availability as the projected impacts of climate change include increased droughts, floods and reduced natural storage in snowpack.  This variability in water supply will stress existing systems and infrastructure which have been designed based on steadier flows.  Progress on the water MDGs is critical to building resiliency to this uncertainty because healthy communities can survive better than weak ones.

Carbon-Water Tradeoffs

Low carbon energy (including carbon capture and storage) can be highly water intensive if designed without consideration of water demands.  In the global race to low carbon energy, have we forgotten about water along the way?  Surely we don’t want to create water shortages now to prevent potential droughts far in the future.  We’re working on a Water-in-Energy Module for the Global Water Tool to help companies understand and balance their energy-water nexus.

We celebrated World Water Day this week for good reason: to recognize the role and value of water in our lives and share strategies to protect and conserve this precious resource.  

Business has made progress on water issues in the last 20 years. Since 1987 when I first went to China to work on water for the national oil industry, I’ve seen firsthand the efforts by business to employ, protect and conserve water to the benefit of their shareholders, employees, customers, communities and ecosystems in more than 40 countries.  During that time, businesses in the least to most developed countries have gone from not knowing the source, quantity or discharge location of their water to reporting water consumption, reusing municipal wastewater rather than fresh water and working with communities to improve their water supply. 

Water will always be a challenge for business to manage because it is a uniquely local raw material shared by numerous stakeholders. Unlike carbon emissions, zero isn’t always the hero for water consumption and the optimum solution in every location depends on balancing a web of local factors including politics, historical allocations, costs, competition and societal pressures.  While water is a global problem, solutions must be local.  For global companies with hundreds of operations and thousands of suppliers spread around the world, this can be overwhelming.  We created the original Global Water Tool to help companies prioritize and take action. 

Work Together, We Must

Look for the expanded Global Water Tool to be launched during World Water Week in Stockholm in September.  We welcome your feedback on how we can improve the Global Water Tool and make it more meaningful or easier to use. Please email suggestions to Partha Bora -- the wizard behind the tool. 

Business cannot succeed in a society that thirsts nor in one that is ill from lack of sanitation.  We must continue to be proactive in moving beyond our own fencelines and working together to attack because the dark sides of water issues threaten us all.

Jan Dell, P.E., is a vice president with CH2M HILL, an industry leader in sustainable energy projects and program management. A chemical engineer, Ms. Dell has more than 20 years of experience extending across more than 40 countries including China, Canada, the Middle East and other regions with energy resources and water supply constraints.

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