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.

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

    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.

    Globally 1.5 billion people work in supply chains. Of those, up to 1.35 billion are employed in small and medium-sized enterprises, or on farms in developing countries, where the water and sanitation crisis is most acute. That’s why businesses, as a key component of good water stewardship practice, can and must take action to help achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6 of reaching everyone, everywhere with taps and toilets by 2030.

    While more multi-nationals are wising up to the benefits of providing water and sanitation to their workforce, a new report jointly commissioned by WaterAid, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the UN Global Compact’s CEO Water Mandate found there are a number of opportunities that could still be seized upon to drive substantial progress; these opportunities could be driven by collaborative efforts between companies and the WASH community.

    Defining ‘acceptable’ good practice

    The research — conducted by Water Witness International, with support from the HSBC Water Program — found that even multi-national companies considered to be progressive on water, sanitation and hygiene provision admitted they need better guidance about what is considered ‘acceptable’ good practice, particularly in areas that go beyond just ensuring having water or toilets in the workplace. Issues requiring attention include what should be the proximity of workplace latrines to the workers’ base, which is particularly important for farmers, and the requirements for women who are menstruating.

    The research also identified the need for businesses to develop a more holistic approach, as well as to have more WASH-specific elements within their codes of conduct for suppliers. A code of conduct which simply states that ‘workers must have access to water and sanitation facilities’ needs more specifics and guidance to be effective.

    Organizations such as Fair Trade and the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) could also be encouraged to incorporate WASH elements into their criteria, standards or certification frameworks.

    Tightening up the definition of acceptable water, sanitation and hygiene services, strengthening existing standards, and implementing more holistic codes of conduct can drive change at all levels, from the boardroom down to the factory floor or field.

    The report sets out an ‘ideal’ approach to water, sanitation and hygiene, which businesses could consider when implementing these services in their supply chains. Going forward, corporations and those working in the sector need to develop, test and publish good practices on how to handle WASH in supply chains, and encourage others to follow suit.

    Access to reliable data

    The research also found there is a clear need for companies to have reliable data on the benefits of providing access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene to employees. Getting such data allows corporations to make the internal case for access to water, toilets and hygiene in the workplace.

    The World Health Organization estimates the financial benefits of providing everyone across Sub-Saharan Africa with water and sanitation would amount to US$23.5 billion a year. However, there is a lack of strong evidence to demonstrate other benefits, including reduced absenteeism, higher productivity, as well as staff and supplier loyalty.

    NGOs such as WaterAid and cross-sector bodies like CEO Water Mandate and WBCSD are key partners in demonstrating how investing in taps and toilets can contribute to core business values, both ethically and financially.

    Next steps

    So what steps can your company take to help end the water and sanitation crisis?

    1. Sign and implement the WBCSD WASH at the workplace pledge ensuring that all employees in direct operations have access to safe WASH while at work.
    2. Broaden and deepen your employee and company understanding about WASH by providing them with the International Labour Organization’s WASH@Work Self-training handbook.
    3. Update your supplier codes; a draft set of criteria for optimal water, sanitation and hygiene provision in supply chains is available for pilot testing by companies.
    4. Contribute to strengthening the business case for WASH by offering opportunities for evidence-gathering from your operations and projects.
    5. Learn about and engage in the WASH4Work initiative, working with a group of agencies, companies, and development partners to address the WASH challenge.

    If you want to learn more about WASH in supply chains and the findings from the latest report, join the debate at Stockholm World Water Week on Sunday 27 August. The session will be chaired by WaterAid, Water Witness International, the CEO Water Mandate and WBCSD. For more information visit

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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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  • 21st Century Water Demand Forecasting

    By Matthew Heberger, Senior Research Associate and Heather Cooley, Water Program Director

    August 31, 2016

    Yogi Berra once said, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” And nowhere is this more true than in the water business. Forecasts are extremely important for water utilities, which must make plans today to meet their communities’ current and future water needs. Since water supply projects can take years to plan and build, utilities’ long-term view often reaches twenty years or more into the future. But the industry has a poor track record when it comes to long-range forecasting.

    The results of this are not purely academic. The end result is that water utilities may build unneeded or oversized water supply and treatment infrastructure – things like reservoirs, pumping stations, treatment plants, and desalination facilities – passing on the costs to customers and creating unnecessary environmental impacts. …»

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  • U.S. Bottled Water Consumption on the Rise: What Does It Mean?

    By Rebecca Olson, Communications Associate

    July 21, 2016

                           Steven Depolo

    If last year’s bottled water sales are any indication, the sale of bottled water in the U.S. this year will likely surpass that of soda. In 2015, Americans bought the equivalent of five bottles of water per citizen each week. Meanwhile, the sale of soda fell 1.5 percent, reaching the lowest level per person since 1985.

    While there is a positive side to this picture — certainly water is a healthier beverage to consume than sugary carbonated drinks — the consumption of bottled water has negative environmental and economic repercussions, as outlined in Peter Gleick’s 2010 book Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water. As Gleick explained, each bottle of water is the product of a vast amount of energy and contributes to plastic waste. …»

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