Future of the Environment

Water shortages must be placed on the climate-change agenda. This is why

This images shows a depleted lake to illustrate water shortages that necessitate industry reporting

Water shortages should be placed on the climate change agenda. Image: Photo by Simon Hurry on Unsplash

Jay Famiglietti
Executive Director, Global Institute for Water Security
José Iganacio Gallindo
Co-founder and CEO, Waterplan
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  • Water is becoming more scarce as regional sources deplete or disappear.
  • Increases in droughts and floods across the world make water resources harder to manage.
  • Industry is largely to blame for the water shortage problems and must now take action to better manage our groundwater.

Most people do not realize it, but freshwater availability is dramatically changing around the world. Wet areas of the planet, such as the tropics, are getting wetter, while the already dry areas of the world, the mid-latitudes, are getting drier.

Some of the most rapid changes are occurring in the northern high latitudes. In the northern reaches of Canada and Russia, for example, warming at up to four times the global average rate is melting glaciers, permafrost and snowpack. Consequently, regional hydrology is being drastically altered, while critical local water sources are being eliminated.

This broad global pattern is accentuated by regional hotspots of too much or too little water, driven by changing extremes of flooding and drought and by the widespread depletion of groundwater aquifers.

Trends in total water storage from the NASA GRACE and GRACE Follow-On Missions from 2002-2022. Red areas have lost water over the last 20 years, while blue areas have gained water.
Trends in total water storage from the NASA GRACE and GRACE Follow-On Missions from 2002-2022. Red areas have lost water over the last 20 years, while blue areas have gained water. Image: Map updated from Rodell, Famiglietti, et al. 2018 by Chandanpurkar et al, 2022

Groundwater withdrawals exceed replenishment rates

Over half of the world’s major aquifers are being rapidly drained because rates of groundwater withdrawals far surpass rates of replenishment. When the cumulative impacts of regional gains and losses of fresh water are comprehensively assessed over the entire world, three startling facts emerge:

First, the continents, with the exception of Greenland and Antarctica, are drying. Water for all uses – for people, environment, food and energy production, industry and economic growth – is becoming far more scarce, as regional sources disappear or are depleted.

Second, rainfall is becoming much more variable, with prolonged periods of drought punctuated by more intense storms, making water resources harder to manage.

Third, we – humans - are solely responsible for all of these changes, as drivers of climate change and of poor managers of groundwater.

Have you read?

Water is the climate change messenger

While increasing carbon dioxide concentrations continue to fuel global warming, water is the stealthy messenger that delivers the bad news about climate change to your town, to your neighbourhood, and to your front door.

As the sole drivers of climate change, it is up to us to adapt, and to the degree possible, to fix our broken water cycle. In contrast to carbon, however, society’s response to water aspects of the climate emergency has been underwhelming. It has simply not approached the pace and scale that the urgency of the climate-water crisis demands.

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What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?

Put water shortages on the climate change agenda

This situation must change immediately. Water must be next on the global climate change agenda. But, because industry and its supply chains, and in particular the food industry, accounts for 80% of water withdrawals globally, we cannot move the needle on global water security without deep industry engagement.

We call on industry to join forces with the public sector, non-profits and academia to provide the global leadership that is essential for adapting to the climate-water risk and for advancing adaptation to our rapidly changing water cycle.

The recent Global Assessment of Private Sector Impacts on Water report from the Global Institute for Water Security (GIWS) at the University of Saskatchewan and the sustainability non-profit Ceres, provides several time-critical recommendations for industry.

Replenishing any used water

This report recommends that companies should strive to return the same amount of water to the environment, at the same or better quality, than was withdrawn. They should ensure that natural ecosystems are not degraded from business activities; restore ecosystems that their businesses depend on; engage deeply in water stewardship activities in the basins in which they operate; help make water more accessible; advocate for watershed protection; support new water conservation and groundwater sustainability policies; foster multi-stakeholder collaborations, since water is a shared resource, with several competing, yet vital uses; and, ensure that water-related risks are accounted for, systematically integrated into corporate governance and decision-making and transparently reported.

Importantly, the report highlights the two-way nature of water risk and water materiality: industry is increasingly threatened by accelerating changes in flooding, drought and water availability; but it also has a long history and dubious distinction as the major polluter of our precious surface and groundwaters, as outlined in the table below.

Threats to freshwater from industrial practices deemed Very High (VH) or High (H) in terms of its severity, systemic nature, and overall impact.
Threats to freshwater from industrial practices deemed Very High (VH) or High (H) in terms of its severity, systemic nature, and overall impact. Image: GIWS-CERES report

Both sides of this dual materiality must be properly valued since industry will be under increasing pressure from investors and from entities, such as the CDP, the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures and the emerging Task Force on Nature-Related Climate Disclosures, to account for and meticulously disclose its relationship with water, just as it has been for carbon.

The private sector is demonstrating its commitment to carbon accounting and management, but that is only half the battle. The time for industry leadership on climate-water risk is now.

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