Water. 

It covers approximately 70% of our planet.  It’s so ubiquitous that we use it without even thinking.  According to the World Water Institute, a mere 2.5% of the earth’s ground and surface water is fresh and accessible for human use.

The world’s water use has tripled within the past 50 years.  Irrigation and dams built to accommodate this rapid consumption have destroyed half of the world’s wetlands in addition to habitats along 60% of the planet’s largest river systems.

Pesticides and fertilizers have concentrated in what’s left, making it unsafe to swim or fish in nearly 40% of US rivers and streams.  Polluted water sickens close to 3.5 million Americans per year. 

One billion people on the planet don’t have access to clean drinking water at all.  That’s one in six of us.  According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, 47% of the world’s population will face severe water shortages by 2030.

Water consumption is not just about the length of your showers or how long you let the faucet run.  Unseen quantities of water are used in the making of our jeans, our food, our morning coffee and practically everything else. 

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People the world over are beginning to realize the true cost of the products they create and consume.

Water footprinting has become increasingly popular within the past two years.  The water footprint of an individual, community or business is defined as the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual or community or produced by the business.

Fifty companies, including Coca-Cola and Levi Strauss, have signed on to the United Nations CEO Water Mandate, committing to decrease their water use and encourage their suppliers and customers to do the same. 

Several companies and organizations, including Finnish food conglomerate Raiso, are looking into ways to print a product’s water footprint on its packaging – much like what Wal-Mart’s Sustainable Product Index hopes to do for environmental and social impact.

The 276 billion euro Norwegian Government Pension Fund—one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds—has announced that it will begin pressuring the 1100 companies with high water-related risks in which it has holdings to report on their progress towards decreased water use.  The Fund says it believes good water risk management could be critical to future performance.

By taking a leadership role in addressing water as a critical global issue, companies can manage future risk to their operations and brands.

*Recommendations for addressing water use as a company:

  • Determine your enterprise-wide water footprint and, if appropriate, evaluate the embedded water in key products;
  • Identify ways to reduce water use (direct and indirect);
  • Consider local water “offset projects” in collaboration with local and global NGOs;
  • “Re-value” water beyond the current cost of water;
  • Determine physical, regulatory and perception risks with direct and indirect water use;
  • Be transparent in communicating your goals and performance; and
  • Finally, develop a corporate-wide sustainability strategy that takes a systems-wide approach to energy, carbon, water and material use. All of these resources are interrelated, and any corporate strategy requires an integrated solution.

(For a more suggestions and to calculate your water footprint, see the Water Footprint Network.)

* Recommendations written by William Sarni, founder and CEO of Domani, for the article “What’s your company’s water footprint?”

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