Nature and Biodiversity

How 'water for all' is good for business, not just a moral imperative

Businesses have a fundamental role in achieving water security.

Businesses have a fundamental role in achieving water security. Image: Unsplash/Johnny McClung

Catherine Russell
Executive Director, UNICEF
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Climate and Nature

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  • The 2023 UN Water Conference in New York has highlighted water's fundamental role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Businesses can help achieve water security managing their own footprint and harnessing investment, knowledge, skills, expertise and partnerships to restore or strengthen water-related infrastructure.
  • Businesses benefit from better water security, as does society in terms of economic and social well-being.

This week, the world came together at the 2023 UN Water Conference, the first since 1977, to put a global spotlight on the importance of water as a catalyst to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Whether we will all have to address water scarcity is no longer a question: it is a given.

Climate change and water are inextricably linked – from flooding and drought to increases of waterborne illnesses like cholera and the uprooting of entire communities. Achieving water security in the face of the climate crisis is one of the most pressing challenges of our time and one that businesses must come together to solve alongside governments, NGOs and affected communities.

More than two billion people worldwide – including 600 million children – still lack access to safely managed drinking water. Over 90% of natural disasters are water-related, including drought, flooding and tropical storms, with significant impact on societies and economies. Children are almost always the most vulnerable and we have a responsibility to ensure a future for them to reach their full potential. Every day, over 1,000 children under the age of five die from diseases linked to unsafe water, sanitation and poor hygiene.

Water security is now one of the greatest global barriers to economic and sustainable development, hindering the secure provision of food, energy and health services. Investment will generate clear economic dividends, not just in terms of reducing operational costs, but also because it increasingly creates opportunities for innovation. The World Bank has calculated that investing in resilient infrastructure in low- and middle-income countries could save $4.2 trillion over the lifetime of this infrastructure, with $4 of benefit for every $1 invested in resilience.

Many companies are making commendable individual efforts to save water, save money and help build good community relations but individual initiatives are not sufficient to address the water crisis and mobilize an effective systemic response.

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Businesses can restore water security

Business can take five key actions to accelerate progress on water security for all:

  • First and foremost, business has a responsibility to manage its water footprint, decrease water consumption, increase water efficiency, and replenish what it uses. Companies should engage in water stewardship, so that the negative impacts associated with the use of water are reversed in company operations and in wider supply chains.
  • Support the rapid scale up of investments and climate financing in order to unlock larger amounts of private investment in the water and sanitation sector in vulnerable countries, as lack of water drives poverty, conflict, instability and displacement.
  • Work in partnerships that can scale access to emerging technologies and innovations; such as to improve efficiencies, support early warning and action systems to avert water scarcity or to find new sources of water.
  • Build capacity and expertise within organizations, national systems and communities to develop knowledge and skills to transform ideas into action and promote a thriving water and sanitation innovation system.
  • Champion systems strengthening and good governance, including calling for policies and regulation that prioritize and protect water, sanitation and hygiene services, especially in highly water vulnerable areas so that no one is left behind.
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Economic livelihoods can only improve – and human health, nutrition, education and equality thrive – when people have access to water that is safe and affordable. More fundamentally, tackling water security is a moral obligation. Safe water is a human right.

Through urgent action, we can address the world’s water crisis and ensure a safer and more secure water supply for business and society alike. By 2030, all children and the communities they live in should have access to a safe, reliable, affordable and sustainable water supply, as well as sanitation and hygiene services that are resilient to shocks. As well as adapting to climate change, water and sanitation systems and technologies must contribute to mitigation, including the reduction of greenhouse gas.

To accomplish this, we must urgently reimagine our approach to water: from supply to usage, infrastructure, governance, and management. We must recognize that water is a finite resource, both a common good and an economic good that needs to be valued, managed and regulated accordingly.

We are committed to partnering for solutions. We are calling on business and governments to join us in making meaningful, transformational, measurable commitments. Only through concerted, collective action will we create a more water secure world and achieve Water Security for All by 2030.

This article is signed by Poul Due Jensen, Group President & CEO, Grundfos; Kinya Seto, CEO, LIXIL Corporation; Rebecca Marmot, Chief Sustainability Officer, Unilever; Gim Huay Neo, Managing Director, Center for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum; Patrick Decker, President & CEO, Xylem Inc.; and Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, Group Chairman and CEO, DP World.

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