The water crisis must be approached with the same urgency and innovation as the COVID 19 crisis – and the business case for action is clearer than ever – CDP Mar 2021
As World Water Day approaches on March 22, it’s important to take a moment and reflect on the fact that despite our collective global advances in science and technology, 2 billion people (26% of the global population) lack access to safe drinking water, 3.6 billion people (46% of the global population) lack safely managed sanitation, and 2.3 billion people (29% of the global population) lack access to basic hygiene. These staggering numbers highlight there is much more work to be done in providing access to basic human rights. If our best and brightest can develop vaccines that halt pandemics and cars that are powered by electricity, it will undoubtedly be possible to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030.
The Truth About Groundwater
World Water Day’s 2022 theme is: “Groundwater: making the invisible visible”. Groundwater, one of two main freshwater sources, is found underground in natural storage reservoirs called aquifers. Groundwater is ‘recharged’ from rain and snowfall that infiltrates into the ground and feeds sensitive aquatic ecosystems, such as wetlands and rivers. Because 30% of all the freshwater in the world is groundwater, it is critically important, and supplies a large proportion of the water we use for drinking, sanitation, food production, and industrial processes. Most arid areas around the world rely exclusively on groundwater as their only water source, and rural areas without developed municipal systems – like Mendocino, CA – use groundwater wells to provide their town with water access.
By 2030, experts project global demand for water outstripping available supply by 40%, with much of the demand stemming from agricultural water withdrawals for irrigation. Globally, 40% of all groundwater is used for irrigation, representing a substantial input in the world’s food system. As the population continues to climb to a projected 9 billion people by 2050, food production will need to increase by approximately 60% to meet this demand. Unfortunately, farmers that irrigate with groundwater are currently seeing groundwater tables decline from over-use, aquifers polluted with excess nutrients that are applied to the soil, and an overall change in precipitation patterns from climate change that are altering the way they irrigate. The farming practices of the past are not holding up well in the present.
So, what can be done to help preserve the world’s critical groundwater resources? The two biggest places to start are groundwater monitoring efforts and transboundary groundwater management agreements. Monitoring efforts help identify how much water is in an aquifer so that it can be sustainably managed in the future. Transboundary groundwater management agreements, or agreements between different countries that rely on a given aquifer, are important because groundwater crosses borders, and collective action is required to manage aquifers to avoid pollution and over-depletion. Farmers need to focus on smart irrigation and regenerative agriculture practices that apply water efficiently and do not add excess nutrients to the soil that end up polluting groundwater. We also need to work towards recharging our aquifers through managed aquifer recharge projects that facilitate the coordinated use of surface water and groundwater resources.
The Business Role in Groundwater
Companies need to do their part to protect groundwater, too. At the most basic level, businesses need to ensure their operations and supply chain are not polluting aquifers. This is a common problem that occurs frequently in countries without robust groundwater protection policies. Businesses also need to help reduce their groundwater withdrawals from aquifers that are over-allocated or located in water-stressed regions. Non-essential water users, like most businesses, are often the first in line to be subject to water curtailments if they use too much water.
Enterprise-level water stewardship strategies can help companies address these groundwater challenges. Water footprinting & accounting and risk assessments, the first two steps of a corporate water stewardship strategy, help companies determine how much groundwater they are using, where this groundwater is being extracted from, and whether the groundwater being withdrawn is in an aquifer that is over-used, polluted, or unknown. For example, the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas helps identify the aquifers throughout the world that are being overused. In the United States, for example, there are three main aquifers that are being over-depleted at a rapid rate: the California Central Valley Aquifer System, the High Plains – Ogallala Aquifer System, and the Cambro-Ordovician Aquifer System. These aquifers are all facing high to extremely high water table decline. If companies have operations or supplier facilities that overlay these areas, they can pursue Alliance for Water Stewardship certification that provides industry-recognized verification that the site has implemented a water management plan and is good stewards of groundwater resources.
On this World Water Day, let’s all take care in recognizing that a large proportion of the world still lacks access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene. Understanding water issues, and the importance it plays our day-to-day lives, is the first step towards action. Here at Anthesis, we look forward to a 2030 where Sustainable Development Goal 6 is achieved and basic human rights around water are restored.