Consensus emerges at World Water Week

Discussions at the Stockholm World Water Week continue to reveal broad consensus on many water-related issues and the immediate need to address them. This guest post from attendee Alex McIntosh, provides valuable insights in the the thinking of thought leaders on water ….

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Reporting real time on Day 4 of World Water Week:  Stockholm, Sweden (9/9/10)

 (posted by Alex McIntosh, founder, Ecomundi Ventures)

By Day Four of the 2,500-attendee conference, a few overarching themes have begun to emerge.  First, in the majority of the watersheds across the globe, we know too little about the amount of water available, the amount extracted in aggregate for human use, or the quality of the watershed.  For this reason, in the seminar On the Road the Corporate Water Reporting, panelists from Nature Conservancy, CERES, Quantis, PepsiCo, CH2M HILL, Unilever, Borealis and other organizations all agreed that the trend towards greater water reporting transparency would continue, primarily driven by businesses’ need to obtain and manage their supply chain water resources, and in response to consumer/customer/investor stakeholder pressure. 

The process of water accounting (“footprinting”) is on the surface a straight-forward exercise.  But lack of existing data in many watersheds and the fact that a standard methodology for water footprinting has not yet won the day are indications that the process of measuring and reporting corporate water use is still “in the early days,” noted Dr. Donna Jefferies, Sustainability Manager at Unilever.  Dr. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, commenting from the audience, recommended that corporations standardize both their methodology as well as their reporting, noting it was “nearly impossible for anyone but the most persistent and knowledgeable reader” to compare use across companies.  Panelists agreed that the smart companies were not waiting for the consensus to emerge, but were moving ahead, experimenting, and collaborating with communities, scientists, and the investment community to present a more thorough picture of their water resource management. 

A second theme emerging from World Water Week is there is general consensus among the world’s water experts and advocates that humanity already has passed the “safety point” with respect to sustainable use.  In the seminar The Future of Global Water Technologies, panelists from McKinsey & Co, ITT, Black & Veatch and more framed the discussion by agreeing on four points: 

  • The world faces significant water resource challenges today, which will worsen in the coming years. 
  • Business as usual practices will not close the “water gap”. 
  • Cost effective, sustainable solutions are possible, but will require an economy-wide approach. 
  • A pathway towards water sector transformation does exist. 

By way of analysis, McKinsey noted that current, accessible, sustainable supply of freshwater equaled 4,200B cubic liters of water, that current withdrawals exceeded that at 4,500 B cubic liters, and that by 2030 that withdrawal demand would, if unchecked, rise to an estimated 6,900 B cubic liters.  A 40% gap.

Solutions include an “energy-water efficiency revolution”, broadening infrastructure models, massive productivity in agriculture, trade in virtual water, tremendous gains in water re-use/recycling, and development of water right and pricing (at least for large customers). 

On Thursday morning, seventeen of the World Water Prize Laureates (the water equivalent to the Nobel Prize) gathered in front of the King of Sweden to discuss and debate the Water Future Challenges  (which humanity will face in 2030).  A fascinating discussion uncovered the following points of agreement by the world’s leading water scientists and thinkers:

  1. The next twenty years present complex and challenging obstacles (population growth, water contamination, climate change) to our ability to achieve the Millennium Development Goals for water.
  2. We have today sufficient technology and resources needed to begin addressing our most pressing water challenges, but for a variety of inter-related reasons, year after year passes without significant action commensurate to those challenges
  3. The most essential actions to be taken in the coming years include communicating more effectively (and with less jargon) to the public, and significantly increasing water education among the citizens of all nations so that they would both better value their water resources and hold their leaders accountable for protecting them.

Though at times bleak, the tenor of the dialogue was hopeful and at times even humorous.  The author hopes that that at the closing plenary tomorrow, the richly-caffeinated, over-tired and talked-out participants can mirror the still-optimistic mindset of the Laureates.

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