WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff

Accelerating the move to a low water economy

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Carry out even a small amount of research into global water scarcity and the statistics can be unnerving. The UN estimates that 2.7 billion people will face water scarcity by 2025, and with climate change accelerating higher salinity levels in a number of regions, water scarcity is now more of a threat than ever.

The future for water availability looks very uncertain, but attempts are now being made to standardise water use measurement and raise the profile of water scarcity issues.

The Copenhagen COP 15 conference was an opportunity to get water scarcity concerns on the negotiating table. While the early dialogue on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions stuttered along, the visible symptoms of climate change can be seen through worsening projections of water availability. This year has seen a heightened awareness of water availability issues, with the link between water scarcity and climate change being presented at the 2009 World Water Forum in Istanbul, and at World Water Week in Stockholm. Yet key text relating to water issues was removed from the final draft negotiating text on climate change mitigation and adaptation that formed the basis of the discussion in Copenhagen.

The primary issue remains GHG emission reductions. However, talk to investors or visionary businesses and the issue of water scarcity poses a far greater risk to business continuity than the global reserves of oil. The global sustainability agenda has become fixated on carbon footprints, carbon accounting, carbon trading, carbon neutrality etc. as the dominant issue to be addressed as part of climate change. Let's be clear that this has shown a way to help provide focus to measure, reduce and communicate GHG emission reductions and provided focus to carbon intensive processes and products. Water however, is often seen as the poorer cousin, and through Copenhagen this continues to be the case.

Clearly, there needs to be a change in focus for water professionals to learn the lessons from carbon and a need to define the concepts of water footprinting and water neutrality and raise the seriousness at which business and governments need to take water management. European legislation is changing to achieve the Water Framework Directive's aim to have good or high quality water across the EU by 2015. Businesses will now be required to maximise both water efficiency and quality.

In terms of wider profile raising, a credible strategy needs to be in place and currently, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has begun consultation on the development of a standard to measure a water footprint and is forecast to be ready for 2011.This is a turning point of credibility for water footprinting and the real challenge will be to integrate existing and parallel work already carried out by the water footprint network, UNEP-SETAC life cycle initiative and the water tool from WBCSD to name but a few. The problem being addressed is that without a standardised and widely-accepted methodology on how to calculate the amount of direct site water use, or indirect water embedded in a product, the outputs lack conviction and robust action cannot be taken.

With debates around the effectiveness of carbon-labelling of products not resolved, water footprinting must form part of a wider eco-labelling practice. With many countries already looking to implement this (Japan, Sweden to name two), a completely different look at how the outputs of footprinting are communicated need to be thought through. The measurements of any water footprint need to be communicated from suppliers through to product end users, and integrated into strategic planning, allowing investors to independently assess a firm's exposure to global water risk. This is starting to happen with the Water Disclosure Project, in parallel to the Carbon Disclosure Project. The ultimate challenge is to find standards and approaches that are consistent among each other and consistent with other standards to help businesses identify methods of reducing water usage and not hinder these methods. This will give legitimacy and encourage a change in behaviour to help drive society towards a low water economy.

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