Pacific Institute Insights is the staff blog of the Pacific Institute, one of the world’s leading nonprofit research groups on sustainable and equitable management of natural resources. For more about what we do, click here.

  • The World’s Water Challenges (2017)

    By Cora Kammeyer
    October 19, 2017

    Water is perhaps the most vital natural resource on the planet. It is necessary for human survival and a critical input into our food, manufacturing, and energy systems. It also sustains the ecosystems and climates upon which both our built and natural world rely.

    Today we are putting more pressure on freshwater resources than ever. Between a rapidly growing population and a shifting climate, water stress – and therefore water risk –  is increasing around the world. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 is focused on water, with several sub-goals related to different water challenges. We have seen promising progress, but there is much work to be done to make water sustainability a reality before the SDG target date of 2030.

    Global water stress map. Source: World Resources Institute.

    Growing Water Demand and Water Scarcity

    Humans withdraw about four thousand cubic kilometers of water globally every year – approximately the volume of all the water in Lake Michigan. This is triple what we withdrew 50 years ago, and withdrawals continue to increase at a rate of about 1.6 percent per year. Global demand for water is predicted to increase by 55 percent between 2000 and 2050.

    Lake Michigan. Source: NASA.

    Much of this new demand will be driven by agriculture, which already accounts for 70 percent of global freshwater use. Food production must grow by 69 percent by 2035 to feed the growing population, which will expand agricultural water needs. Energy production currently accounts for less than 10 percent of global water consumption. But the world’s energy demand is on track to rise 35 percent by 2035, which is expected to increase the energy sector’s water consumption by 60 percent.

    This growing demand presents a growing challenge for meeting all of humanity’s water needs. Due to the combination of population growth, unsustainable water withdrawals, and poor infrastructure and governance, in many parts of the world there is already insufficient safe water supply. Sustainable Development Goal 6.4 focuses on ensuring sustainable water withdrawals and reducing the number of people who suffer from water scarcity – of whom there are many. Today 1.7 billion people live in river basins where water demand outstrips supply, known as water-stressed areas. By 2050, this is expected to jump to 2.3 billion.

    Global water demand projections to 2040. Source: IEA.

    This worsening imbalance of water supply and demand is a problem companies both contribute to, and face operational risks from. Recognizing this, investors are increasingly considering water scarcity as a risk factor when making investment decisions.

    Water Pollution

    However, water stress is driven by factors beyond the simple physical abundance of water, especially water quality and pollution.  Nearly all human uses of water, from agricultural to industrial to municipal, result in water pollution. Currently, over 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is discharged back into rivers, streams, and oceans without any treatment, causing widespread damage to ecosystems and contamination of critical human water sources. Sustainable Development Goal 6.3 aims to improve water quality by reducing pollution – in particular, by increasing the proportion of wastewater that is safely treated before being returned to the system.

    Businesses, particularly in the industrial and agricultural sector, are often major sources of water pollution. When companies pollute the waters where they operation, they expose themselves to regulatory and reputational risks. When businesses have facilities in highly polluted river basins they face operational risks, and their water treatment costs often increase.

    Insufficient Access to Safe, Affordable Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

    Physical abundance of water supplies does not necessarily mean there is adequate quantity and quality of water to meet basic human needs. Often, humans are unable to reliably access physically available water supplies due to inadequate infrastructure and weak governance. In 2010, the United Nations formally recognized the right of all human beings to have access to sufficient, safe, affordable, and accessible water and sanitation. But today, 2.1 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water and 4.5 billion people lack safely managed sanitation services. This has major health and mortality implications, particularly for young children in developing countries. Every year approximately 700,000 children under five die due to inadequate WASH.

    Little water carriers in Namibia. Photo by: Jessica Mulder.

    Sustainable Development Goal 6.2 sets out to achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030. There is a strong business case to take action on this goal; research shows that every $1 invested in improving water and sanitation returns an average of $4.30. Given that adults spend a large portion of their time at the workplace, companies have a critical role in providing adequate WASH for employees, both in direct operations and in supply chains. Inadequate WASH in the workplace poses financial risks to business in the form of declines in productivity and increased absenteeism.

    Freshwater Ecosystems at Risk

    Freshwater ecosystems are biodiversity hotspots, but they also been the most impacted by human development. Sustainable Development Goal 6.6 aims to protect and restore water-related ecosystems by 2020. These systems are vital to supporting not only plant and animal life, but also to providing essential ecosystem services for humans. The total value of the world’s ecosystem services is estimated at some $147 trillion, but over 60 percent of these are being degraded or used unsustainably. If we continue to degrade these systems, those services – water supply, recreation, and flood protection to name a few – will no longer be naturally available. Businesses relying on these natural services will face extremely high costs in replacing or recreating them.

    Freshwater ecosystem art. Source: UN Water.

    Impacts of Climate Change on Water

    Underlying all the world’s water challenges are the looming repercussions of our changing global climate. Climate change introduces a huge amount of uncertainty to water supply reliability in the future. Where people and businesses could once rely on a safe and stable supply of water, there will be perturbation and threats to that supply. We are already seeing increased intensity of water-related natural events like droughts and floods, and this trend is expected to continue. Sustainable Development Goal 13.1 aims to strengthen resilience and adaptation to climate-related hazards and natural disasters, which the world will increasingly face.

    On one side, the number of people at risk from floods is projected to hit 1.6 billion in 2050, with $45 trillion worth of assets at risk. On the other extreme, it is estimated that by 2050, 3.9 billion people will live in river basins under severe water stress. The nature of these impacts will vary by region, changing global water stress dynamics.

    This increase in extreme conditions and variability present a major challenge to companies. In addition, corporate action on climate is inextricably linked with water. For example, companies report that a quarter of their greenhouse gas reduction activities depend on a reliable water supply.

    No Silver Bullet Solutions

    Water is by its nature a local resource. Water stress occurs at the basin or even sub-basin level; issues of supply-demand imbalance and pollution tend to be highly localized. The nature and degree of water stress depends on myriad basin-scale factors such as hydrologic conditions, precipitation, infrastructure, and number and type of water users in a given space and time. This is not inherently bad, but it presents a challenge because solution to water issues must be tailored by location – there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

    Compare water to carbon dioxide, for example. The benefit of reducing a unit of carbon emissions is the same no matter where in the world it happens. In contrast, the benefit of saving, treating, or reusing a unit of water varies greatly depending on the conditions of the system from which that water comes. This unique attribute of water means effective progress on all the issues discussed above will require collective action among water users in a basin and careful consideration of the watershed context.  Ideally, companies will focus water stewardship efforts strategically in the basins where they will be most impactful.

    River in Mydral, France. Photo by: Roberto Marsanasco.

    Why Water Matters for Business

    All the challenges discussed so far demonstrate that water is a material risk to companies. Companies disclosing to CDP reported $14 billion in water-related impacts in 2016 alone. The resources on the CEO Water Mandate website have been cultivated to help companies understand the nature of water-related risks and why water stewardship is good for business.

    This blog post was originally published on the CEO Water Mandate blog.

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  • Watershed Context & Water Stewardship Goals: Why Thinking Local is Critical to Hedging Global Corporate Water Risk

    By Morgan Campbell


    What do the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, destructive monsoon flooding in Mumbai, India, Hurricane Harvey’s devastating storm surges in Texas, the recent five-year California drought, and the hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico all have in common? They are all water risk events. Although they are characterized by differences in geography, they show water risks faced today are as diverse as the world’s topography and precipitation patterns. And while global pollutants, such as carbon or chlorofluorocarbons, can be addressed by global reduction initiatives, the inherently local nature of water risk requires that we weave together localized solutions to protect the future sustainability of water resources. …»

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  • How Your Business Can Play a Role in Ending the Global Water and Sanitation Crisis

    By Peter Schulte

    No one need explain the true value of water to 54-year-old Elizabeth and her family in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.  She spends more than half her meagre salary on buying drinking water from a local water vendor, as she knows the water from the nearby lake could make her unwell, unproductive and unable to provide for her family.

    Elizabeth knows that installing a safe water supply and decent toilet close to her home and market stall makes good business sense. She’ll spend less money on buying water. And a decent toilet will increase her productivity and reduce her absence from work, because she’ll get sick less often. In the long-run, if $1 were invested in water and sanitation, an average of $4 would be returned in increased productivity.

    Imagine now that instead of Elizabeth working at an independent market stall, she works in the supply chain of a multi-national food retailer. The lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in her workplace could cost the company millions in lost productivity; every year, the equivalent of US$4 billion in working days are lost due to poor sanitation.


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  • Make Public Drinking Water Fountains Great Again

    By Rapichan Phurisamban and Peter Gleick

    In February of 2017, the Pacific Institute released a white paper entitled Drinking Fountains and Public Health: Improving National Infrastructure to Rebuild Trust and Ensure Access, which highlighted the limited evidence of a link between illness and disease outbreaks and drinking fountains. The report found that most problems could be traced to contamination from poor cleaning and maintenance or old water infrastructure in buildings, and called for comprehensive testing of drinking fountains, implementation of standard protocols for fountain maintenance, and a nationwide effort to replace old water infrastructure, which can be the source of lead and other contaminants.

    One aspect of efforts to expand access to fountains is to take a look at current drinking fountain technology and identify features that can help ensure their quality, convenience, and reliability. Ultimately, these features can help increase public confidence and access to high quality and affordable tap water.


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  • Mobile Apps to Quench Your Thirst

    A Review of Public Drinking Fountain Finders

    By Ayana Crawford and Rapichan Phurisamban

    Public drinking fountains used to be everywhere, providing a reliable source of free, high-quality drinking water outside the home. They are a great alternative to bottled water, with its steep environmental costs and high price (200 to 1,000 times more expensive than tap water or more). Drinking fountains, however, have been disappearing from public spaces over the past few decades. Poor public perception and concerns over water quality (as illustrated in the “water fountain episode” of Parks and Recreation) have played a role in their disappearance.

    Water quality issues at public fountains, when they exist, can be traced to poor cleaning and maintenance or old piping and fixture parts. To ensure the quality and continuance of public drinking fountains, (1) they must be routinely cleaned and maintained; (2) old drinking fountains with lead parts must be replaced or new fountains installed in high-traffic areas, and; (3) modern tools must be developed to let people know how to find these fountains.


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  • Corporate Water Targets: A New Approach

    By Tien Shiao

    Screen Shot 2017-05-20 at 8.32.06 PM


    Water risks once again rank as one of the top 10 global risks in the 2016 World Economic Forum’s annual report.

    Screen Shot 2017-05-20 at 8.22.58 PMBecause of this, more and more companies view water as a business risk and water stewardship as a solution. As such, they are looking to find ways to measure their performance and progress. However, current methods for creating water stewardship metrics that evaluate on-the-ground projects are inadequate.

    Corporate water targets are often developed with various objectives in mind. Sometimes they are used to demonstrate the company’s leadership to external audience. Sometimes they are used to inform and inspire employees internally. Sometimes they are used to align water efforts across the company’s operations in various regions. And sometimes they are used to mark the company’s contributions to …»

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  • Thirsty for Change? 4 Ways to Improve Corporate Water Targets

    By Paul Reig, Morgan Gillespy, Tien Shiao, Kari Vigerstol and Alexis Morgan

    Context-based water targets slider cropped


    Water-related business risks are becoming more and more apparent. According to CDP’s 2016 global water report, 607 companies lost $14 billion last year alone due to water scarcity, drought, flood and other water risks.

    Current methods for creating corporate water stewardship targets—which often ignore the unique local context of water issues—are inadequate. For companies to succeed as water stewards, they need a new generation of targets. Such targets—based on the local context and guided by the best available science—would help ensure long-term business growth in the face of increased competition and depletion of water.

    That’s why CDP, the UN Global Compact CEO Water Mandate, the Nature Conservancy, the World Resources Institute and WWF are calling for a new approach to setting corporate water targets. Our discussion paper launched today makes the case for setting context-based corporate water targets. Here are four considerations for companies looking to create more impactful water stewardship goals:

    1. Local context matters—a lot.


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  • National Geographic ScienceBlogs: National Water Infrastructure Efforts Must Expand Access to Public Drinking Fountains

    By Peter Gleick and Rapichan Phurisamban 

    March 8, 2017


    Modern drinking fountains chill and filter water, and let users fill water bottles (Photo: Peter Gleick 2011)

    Modern drinking fountains chill and filter water, and let users fill water bottles (Photo: Peter Gleick 2011)

    There is strong bipartisan support for expanding investment in the nation’s water infrastructure as part of a broader infrastructure effort. But there is, as yet, little agreement about what specific investments should be made. Here is one idea: expand access to high-quality and safe municipal water by improving access to drinking fountains in schools, parks, public buildings, and around public transit areas.

    Drinking fountains are an important public resource, serving as an alternative to bottled water or sugary drinks and accommodating a wide array of users, including children, commuters, runners, the homeless, and tourists. Some fountains are even designed to provide water for pets. A newly released study from the Pacific Institute, entitled “Drinking Fountains and Public Health: Improving National Water Infrastructure to Rebuild Trust and Ensure Access,” discusses the state of the nation’s drinking fountains and addresses concerns about their quality and links to illnesses. The report concludes that the risk of fountain water contamination can be reduced or eliminated altogether through improved maintenance and cleaning or updating and replacing old water infrastructure and pipes. …»

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  • National Geographic ScienceBlogs: From Scientists to Policymakers: Communicating on Climate, Scientific Integrity, and More

    By Peter Gleick, President-Emeritus and Chief Scientist

    December 1, 2016

    Among the different professional categories, scientists and engineers remain very highly respected by the public, at least compared to politicians, business leaders, the media, and even religious authorities. Part of this is due to the fact that success in the scientific enterprise depends on impartial analysis and independence from political ideology. And yet there are strong connections between science and policy: good policy without good science is difficult; good policy with bad science is impossible. Sure, there is plenty of bad policy made even in the face of contradictory scientific evidence, but that is the result of political failures, or, at times, poor scientific communication.

    A perennial question facing scientists is when — and how — to participate in public communication and policy debates around issues of social concern. This is not a new question: as long as scientists have seen a connection between their work and major challenges facing society, some have acted on a sense of responsibility to contribute to debates about how science can be harnessed to improve the world. Scientists have little political power: they are small in numbers, rarely sufficiently financially wealthy to use money as a political tool, and often politically naïve or poorly networked.


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  • National Geographic Presents: Water Scarcity

    By Peter Gleick, President-Emeritus and Chief Scientist

    October 27, 2016

    The reality of climate change, driven by the fossil-fuel industrialization of the planet, is upon us. Scientists have known for decades of this risk and have, with increasing urgency, tried to alert the public and policy makers about the threat and the opportunities to reduce that threat, to little avail. And now, we must live with unavoidable consequences, even as we continue to work to reduce the emissions of climate-changing gases.

    Among those unavoidable consequences are widespread impacts on freshwater – perhaps the most important resource for human and ecological well being, economic productivity, and global security. Water is a renewable resource, and vital for all the things we want to do. The hydrologic cycle of evaporation, condensation, precipitation, runoff, and back to evaporation provides life-giving rains for crops and forests, generates the runoff we see flowing in our rivers and streams, and refreshes the oceans that are the nurseries for much of the life on the planet.


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