Urgent action needed to avert water supply crisis

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December 14, 2015

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The successful COP21 climate change talks in Paris brought into sharp focus the urgent need for action on better water strategies to avert economic crisis.

Image of globe with water ripples illustrating water crisis

Delight over the historic conclusion of the complex COP21 negotiations was tempered by the clearer understanding of the monumental task ahead. And the future of water supply is one area where the effects of inadequate action will be felt in every area of life.

While the COP21 agreement committed nations to ensuring that global warming was kept to well under 2 degrees, the renewed awareness of better water management was highly visible.

In the final week of the talks, a report from ING Bank warned that increasing demand for water globally is unsustainable, predicting that demand would outstrip supply by 50% over the next 25 years.

Water partners

The report is starkly clear in its recommendations that every sector in the economies around the globe need to act responsibly and manage their water consumption more effectively.

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The ING Bank report, Too little, too much: The diverse sectoral challenges of water, underlines that freshwater supplies across the world are under increasing pressure as developing nations consume more in their industries.

Global demand

This, combined with rapid population growth, is forecast to increase annual global demand to around 6.4 billion cubic metres (m3) by 2040, which is roughly 50% more than the current freshwater supply of 4.2 billion m3. Current consumption, according to the Water Resources Group, is around 3.5 billion m3.

The report says:

“Most of this water (67%) is used in agriculture, mainly for irrigation purposes, while 21% is used for industrial purposes and 12% for municipal usage.

“With 24 of the 60 largest economies in the world classified as emerging markets, many of these countries are likely to see economic development, resulting in the industrial sector becoming more prominent.

“Within the already growing demand for water due to population and economic growth in general, this trend will lead to an expected increasing share of industrial water usage, from 21% currently to an expected 38% in 2040. A large part of this will be consumed in the process of electricity production.


Water stress

The ING economists say that with almost half of the 60 largest economies likely to face extremely high water stress, the demand and predicted shortfalls “clearly calls for responsible use of water across sectors and businesses”.

It advises that 29 of the 60 largest economies that deliver 57% of global GDP are ranked “high to extremely high” for water stress risk by the World Resources Institute.

These 29 are where water-intensive extraction and production is heavily concentrated – 88% of coal mining, 80% of textile production and 74% of global agriculture are located in these countries.

The report argues that a potential incentive could be the introduction of regulations for water use acting much like the carbon price that match more closely the true value of water used.

So it was heartening to see the launch of a new business water coalition during the COP21 talks. The Business Alliance for Water and Climate Change group includes giants like GSK, Diageo, Danone, Veolia and Saint Gobain.

The group of 27 businesses aims to reduce risks related to the quality and availability of water with a focus on three main areas with commitments to:

  1. Analyze and share water-related risks to implement collaborative response strategies
  2. Measure water footprint with existing standards. The business community has to make every effort to reduce its water footprint. To do so, the first step consists of measuring water-related risks in direct operations and all along the value chain.
  3. Reduce impacts on water availability and quality in direct operations and all along the value chain. This relies on the implementation of a strategic action plan, aiming at improving the operational eco-efficiency of water use thanks to the best available technologies, in adequacy with the local context.

Water stewardship

Better water stewardship was also boosted during the COP21 talks with the launch of the Paris Pact on Water and Climate Change Adaptation, announcing a range of initiatives, backed by $1 billion funding.

A broad coalition of national and international interests – river basin organisations, governments, funding agencies, local governments, companies and civil society – will strengthen water monitoring and measurement systems, promote financial sustainability and encourage new investment in water systems management.

The group says:

“Climate changes, coupled with unsustainable use of water, are causing widespread impacts on societies and economies, creating droughts, floods and warming which affect all water systems and trigger negative and often fatal impacts.

“Without improved water resources management, the progress towards poverty reduction targets, the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and sustainable development in all its economic, social and environmental dimensions, will be jeopardised.”


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