While seventy percent of the Earth is covered with water, approximately 1% of the world's water is readily available for human use and all of that stems from precipitation over time. The annual rainfall on the continents is finite. Given that a kilogram of wheat bread requires 1,600 litres of water to produce and a single litre of beer requires around 300 litres of water to produce, it is plain to see that as the global population grows, water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource, and one that requires stewardship. The ramifications of water scarcity are becoming acute. The World Economic Forum's 2016 Global Risk Report places water crises in the top three Global Risks in Terms of Impact, third after failure of climate change mitigation or adaptation and weapons of mass destruction.
Water scarcity is an excess of water demand over available water supply. It is not purely an issue of physical water availability. Rather, scarcity is defined by how we manage and allocate the resources that are available. For individuals and communities, water scarcity is a social construct - a consequence of being born poor in the 'wrong' place. For ecosystems, water scarcity is the result of man-made processes such as unconstrained abstraction for agricultural or industrial use, unsustainable demand from increasing populations and urbanisation or because of variabilities in resource levels driven by climate change. As the UNDP noted in their landmark 2006 report Beyond Scarcity, the world's water crisis is rarely a problem of absolute scarcity but is instead one of governance. Water scarcity is intrinsically linked with how we collectively manage water resources and water access.
Water abstraction may cause long-term harm to catchments and aquifers, leading to alteration of habitat, local climate and sustainable water supply. This affects community health, challenges food supply, inhibits economic development and may lead to conflict within local communities and between all water users. Water scarcity also affects major energy sources (oil, gas, biofuel, electric power) because of the very large amounts of water required for fuel production and power generation. Water treatment, in addition, is a major consumer of fossil fuels.
Water can be a substantial operational cost for business. Saving water through good management makes sound business sense. But reducing on-site water use will not, on its own, lead to improved water management by the public and private institutions with the ultimate responsibility for the resource. In order to mitigate the business risks, as identified in the WEF Global Risk Report: sustainability of supply; resource pollution; lax regulatory control; and the social license of businesses operating adjacent to water-poor communities, it is necessary to move from an on-site, efficient water management mindset to a much broader focus contributing towards the effective stewardship of a shared resource.
Stewardship considers the impact of business activities on water availability and quality beyond organisational boundaries and recognises water to be a common pool resource requiring collective responsibility [and action?]. It is about playing an active part in taking care of something we do not own but upon which we all rely. In the words of the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS), "Good water stewards understand their own water use, catchment context and shared risk in terms of water governance, water balance, water quality and important water-related areas; and then engage in meaningful individual and collective actions that benefit people and nature."
Water stewardship is intended to support and contribute to Integrated Water Resource Management by all actors. The AWS Standard applies to any site that interacts with water (i.e., uses, consumes, withdraws, sources, treats, supplies, diverts or discharges water into water bodies). Implementing the AWS Standard helps sites to:
- mitigate their water risks,
- address their shared water challenges in the catchment, and
- ensure that responsible water stewardship actions are in place to minimise negative impacts and maximise positive impacts for everyone
Tools and certification schemes are available to businesses to help and encourage them to become better at managing and to start stewarding water. A key point is that relatively small steps within a strategic approach can have a big impact.
- Measuring consumption: this can be done just by checking the bills or taking readings of the meter at regular intervals. This data can then be used to make absolute reductions in use or for comparison with other businesses in the sector, on a like-for-like basis.
- Assessing the water footprint: this can help establish where water is used and what might need attention such as where the greatest water consumption occurs and whether such a consumption rate is sustainable.
- Developing a management plan: taking a systematic approach to water use and how to reduce or safeguard it. It is possible to set targets for use and cost reductions.
- Identifying leaks and repairing them promptly: often as simple as turning off taps, changing toilet flush systems and regularly inspecting exposed pipe work.
- Creating awareness: raising the profile of water efficiency within the business by making staff aware of costs and the impact on profit. This can help reduce water wastage.
- Recycling and reusing: seeking alternative ways of reusing what would normally be waste water, such as water for cooling being used for cleansing or using rainwater to wash vehicles, flush toilets and urinals.
- Integrating water management into strategic planning within the business as a whole.