Nature and Biodiversity

Applying a circular economy mindset will help ensure a water-secure future

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Ensuring a water-secure future could be as big a sustainability opportunity as cutting emissions. Image: Pixabay/Arek Socha

Ryan Lynch
Practice Director, Sustainability Practice, BSI
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  • Water provision and use contribute 10% of global emissions, while drought could affect as many as 75% of the world’s population by 2050.
  • Ensuring a water-secure future could be as big a sustainability opportunity as cutting emissions.
  • Applying a circular economy mindset to the water security challenge can help tackle some of the key drivers of the issue.

It has been a summer of extreme weather, with forest fires in Europe and Canada, record temperatures in China, and an unprecedented storm in California. Yet, one thing that isn’t always considered in the discussion of rising temperatures and climate change is water availability.

With levels of water scarcity soaring as annual water use rises by around 3,500 billion cubic metres (m3) globally over the last century, this deserves as much global attention as climate change. And increasing water circularity through global collaboration could have a hugely positive impact, by reducing drought risk, supporting climate goals and advancing social development to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Image: BSI

The question of how we secure a water positive future is at the heart of Thirst for Change, new research from BSI and the NGO Waterwise. As the research makes clear, while water is abundant on Earth, just 0.5% is available as fresh water, and a combination of population growth, climate change, and economic development is driving demand and putting growing, unsustainable pressure on this supply.

Crucially, we found that water provision and use contribute around 10% of global carbon emissions, while drought could affect as many as 75% of the world’s population by 2050. Ultimately, action now on water could be as beneficial to the planet as tackling the climate crisis – and the two are inextricably linked.

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A global problem

Like climate change, water security is an issue relevant to all economies, not just those known for arid landscapes. The BSI Water Security Indicator evaluated availability across 40 locations, with the US, China and India receiving the top rating, meaning they are facing the highest possible water security challenge.

The US has moderate water availability challenges but very high levels of personal consumption and leakage per capita, while specific locations are under extreme pressure, such as Los Angeles. In China, where the cities of Chengdu, Tianjin, Xi'an, Beijing and Shanghai face severe water stress, there is the major twin challenge of having low levels of renewable water available per capita and high levels of utilization. Even the UK – known, after all, for its rainfall – is ranked as medium, in light of having one of the lowest levels of renewable water resources available per capita.

Image: BSI

Circular economy mindset

As with the race to net zero, there is much we can do to have a positive impact and meet this challenge, if governments, the water sector and other players, including organizations, collaborate on a large scale.

There are lots of strategies that can be deployed here, but a key starting point is making it easier for consumers to choose water-saving products, for example, via product labelling. More broadly, it is about embedding a circular economy mindset that sees preserving water as a priority. Many of us have embraced the journey to net zero, and now understand Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions reduction as critical.

We can do the same with water and effect change if we step up efforts to prioritize addressing water availability challenges, and encourage a positive water-saving culture amongst individuals, organizations and society, at home and in the workplace, and across different sectors of industry. In a world where water security is a growing issue, we all have a role to play.

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

Delving deeper into this, it’s about no longer seeing water as infinite, but instead recognizing that making water recycling and reuse the norm is within our grasp. Reusing water provides a huge opportunity to reduce freshwater withdrawals and to address rising demand. This could mean ensuring that in water-stressed areas, water reuse measures are included in new buildings (much more cost effective than retrofitting them) or expanding the use of rainwater harvesting for flushing the toilet rather than using quality drinking water.

Where development is proposed in water-stressed areas, governments can drive progress by using regulation and multi-stakeholder standards to encourage reuse and even water neutrality. Likewise, we can partner across society to encourage greater monitoring of progress on water recycling and reuse measures in a standardized way. Applying a circular economy mindset to the water security challenge can help tackle some of the key drivers of the issue.

Greater recognition of problem

They say that where there’s a will there’s a way – and in a positive sign, the findings come amidst recognition of the importance of water management. According to polling commissioned by BSI and conducted by Malvern Insight, two-thirds of consumers and 80% of small business leaders (US and UK) identified clean water and sanitation as “part of sustainability”, while half of the former and 44% of the latter placed it in the top five issues to focus global resource and effort on.

Water is one of the earth’s most fundamental and precious resources. If we collaborate as a global population, as with climate change, we can uncover strategies to improve water availability by providing solutions that can benefit people and planet. Ensuring a water-secure future could be as big a sustainability opportunity as reducing carbon emissions and could help us accelerate progress towards a sustainable world.

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