Working together will be essential to global efforts to manage water use sustainably and responsibly.

The concept of carbon neutrality is now a familiar one, with many governments and industry leaders across the world signed-up to the goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.  At the moment, water neutrality does not have as high a profile.  But it’s an idea that is set to play an increasingly big part in global business and policy conversations.  So, what exactly is it?

Let’s take a step back and look at the role water plays in our lives.  Drinking enough water is, of course, essential to support life itself.  And water plays a fundamental role in many other ways, too.  We use it in our homes every day for washing, cooking and cleaning.  Farmers need it to produce food.  And it plays a vital role in numerous industries – from metal, to chemicals, to paper.

In one sense, there’s a lot of water around: it does, after all, cover 70% of our planet.  But fresh water, which is usually what’s required, is a lot rarer.  It forms only 3% of the world’s water, with two-thirds of this unavailable for use or locked up in frozen glaciers[1].  The problem is compounded by the fact that water usage is rising.  Globally, water use has been increasing by about 1% every year over the last 40 years, according to Unesco’s World Water Development Report 2023[2].  This is down to factors such as population growth, changing patterns of consumption and socio-economic development.  The overall global demand for water is estimated to continue growing at 1% a year – a potential increase of 20% to 30% by 2050.

Water scarcity: a growing problem

While the demand for water is increasing, in many places climate change and the warming planet, is actually making water scarcer.  In 2023, for example, there has been an unprecedented winter drought in much of Europe after what is thought to have been the continent’s driest summer in 500 years[3] in 2022.  Water levels much lower than usual meant boats in Germany could not load all their cargo at some ports, and public parks in Barcelona went unwatered.  Elsewhere, a recent international study found that climate change was worsening droughts in the Horn of Africa[4]. The resulting problems have included harvest failure, losses of livestock, less surface water availability and an increase in conflict risk.  More than four million people in the region were left needing humanitarian help.

A world of water shortages would clearly face serious problems, from financial volatility to famine and conflict.  For many people, this is already a reality.  Between two and three billion people globally already experience water shortages for at least one month per year.  And the urban population facing water scarcity is forecast to double to up to 2.4 billion people by 2050[5].  The UNESCO World Water Development Report 2023[6] – which was released at the United Nations (UN) water conference in New York earlier this year – says that for some regions, water scarcity exacerbated by climate change could lead to a loss of 6% of GDP by 2050.

What is a water footprint?

Clearly, it’s in everyone’s interest to address this problem.  The first stage is to develop a better understanding – among individuals, corporations and governments – of water usage and how we can manage it.  This is where the idea of a ‘water footprint’ comes in.  Similar to a carbon footprint, the water footprint refers to the amount of water consumed by a person, place or organization – or used in a particular process.

According to the Water Footprint Network, the water footprint “measures the amount of water used to produce each of the goods and services we use.  

It can be measured for a single process, such as growing rice, for a product, such as a pair of jeans, for the fuel we put in our car, or for an entire multi-national company”.  On this basis, the water footprint per capita for the UAE, for example, is 2,270 gallons per day (gpd).  In comparison, the water footprint for Bangladesh is 557 gpd[7]

At a domestic level, this usage could be reduced in various ways.  Changing our behavior – such as taking shorter showers or turning off the tap when cleaning our teeth – could lead to using less water in our homes.  We might reach the same goal by installing new devices, such as smart taps or a water-saving toilet.  Reusing water can also have an impact on domestic water footprints.  For example, some people use a bucket to collect shower water, which they might then reuse for cleaning the car.  And collecting rainwater to use in the home can also reduce overall water usage.

Looking at larger scale water footprints, the same principles of reduction and reuse apply as they do in the home.  Some businesses are setting encouraging examples here. Multinational consumer products company Colgate-Palmolive has reduced water usage in its production cycle by 52% between 2002 and 2022 – the equivalent of around 26,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.  It has now set a target for achieving water neutrality at all its manufacturing sites in water stressed areas by 2025, and all other sites by 2030.[8]

Tech is one industry sector where a number of high-profile names are making concerted efforts to reduce their water usage.  At its Mountain View campus in San Francisco Bay, USA, Google uses a range of water efficiency measures such as collecting rainwater and recycling wastewater, (larger properties such as offices can make use of systems to collect, treat and then reuse wastewater, which are generally uneconomical to install in homes).  The company is also using ground-source heat pump technology to reduce the campus’ annual energy use for cooling by 60%, and directly reduce the water demand for cooling by 90%.  Google is also reducing the amount of water it uses to cool its data centers, by sourcing the water from places such as industry, the sea and canals – or even replacing water cooling completely with air cooled technology.

For many companies and organizations, reducing the water footprint to zero will be difficult to achieve through reduction and reusing measures alone.  In practice then, much like with carbon offsetting, reaching what we might call ‘water neutrality’ will often involve offsetting any water usage that remains after these have been implemented, by investing in initiatives elsewhere that save, restore or replenish water.

Google, for example, has contributed to a project to reduce the amount of water withdrawn from the Lake Mead reservoir in the US states of Nevada and Arizona.  It is also investing in rainwater harvesting systems in Ireland, and in efforts to remove ‘water-thirsty’ invasive species from the San Gabriel mountains near Los Angeles to support the local ecosystem.  Through schemes like these, the company promises that by 2030 it will be ‘water positive’ – replenishing 120% of the water it consumes across its offices and data centers[9].  Both Facebook and Microsoft have made similar pledges to restore more water than they consume by 2030[10],[11].

System-level approach

The idea of water neutrality might seem a fairly straightforward matter of reducing the water footprint to zero.  But the reality is complicated, not least because a large part of water footprints – whether from individuals or corporations – is indirect.  

Our personal impact on water demand doesn’t just come from the water we use in our homes.  It also arises from the water used to grow our food, make our clothes or for the many other products and services we use.  According to the Water Footprint Network, each consumer globally on average ‘eats’ 5,000 liters of water every day.  The average water footprint of cotton fabric is 10,000 liters per kilogram – meaning a pair of jeans could cost 8,000 liters of water to make. And growing enough black tea to use in just one standard cup requires 120 equal-sized cups of water[12].

The impact of businesses on water use is even more complicated.  Experts at McKinsey and Company[13] argue that a company’s water footprint is affected by four key areas of the value chain: raw materials, suppliers, direct operations, and product use.  Think of a cotton T-shirt, for example.  Water is firstly used in growing the cotton used for the shirt, and then by the supplier which processes the cotton into fabric.  Water is then used by the various companies which manufacture, transport and sell the T-shirt – and later by the person who buys the garment and washes it at home.

Often, companies’ water positive ambitions only concern direct operations.  Google’s pledge, for example, covers the water consumed in its offices and data centers.  But it doesn’t include the water used elsewhere in its value chain, such as in the manufacturing of its hardware products and data center equipment.  For some businesses – such as in the manufacturing or agriculture sectors – the water footprints, both direct and indirect, will be substantial and complex.  For a number of reasons, then, we need to think about water footprints at a system level in order to truly tackle water neutrality.

Introducing water stewardship

Fresh water comes from watersheds, also known as drainage basins.  These are areas where rainwater collects and flows into bodies of water like rivers or lakes.  But many of these are stressed, with a high proportion of water being withdrawn.  To protect and enhance watersheds, the focus is increasingly turning to water stewardship – defined by the United National Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) as “using water in a way that is socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial”[14]

Many water stewardship projects involve working with other organizations and communities to conserve and enhance watersheds.  In 2017, for example, Facebook partnered with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and the Trout Unlimited non-profit to support flow and drainage in the Upper Rio Grande in New Mexico, using new tools to manage, store, and deliver water.  It has also worked with the city of Eagle Mountain in Utah, to create a system that allows city parks to reuse the company’s treated wastewater.

Some companies are working with suppliers and customers to support responsible practices throughout their value chain as well as their direct operations.  Mindful of forecasts which indicate increased water stress in areas that its suppliers work in, Colgate-Palmolive has been engaging with the Mint Industry Research Council to explore approaches such as smart irrigation to help promote the responsible use of water among natural mint farmers.  The company has also carried out webinars to highlight water stewardship best practices among Indian suppliers.  By 2025, it aims to engage 100% of its material suppliers in water stressed regions to take action on water security[15].

A particularly interesting pledge came last year from US multinational Proctor and Gamble (P&G), which considers its whole value chain in its strategy towards a water positive future, published in 2022[16].  P&G has set a goal for 2030 of restoring more water than is consumed from its manufacturing sites in 18 water-stressed areas across the world.  More unusually, by the same year it aims to restore more water than is consumed when using P&G products in two water-stressed urban areas: Los Angeles and Mexico City.  P&G estimates that these two areas account for more than half of the total P&G-associated water consumption across all its 18 priority areas.

Defining and measuring

So, efforts in water stewardship appear to be gathering pace.  But there are significant challenges.  Some of these relate to defining concepts and ambitions.  For example, water ‘consumption’ typically doesn’t refer to all water use: it’s usually defined as water that does not return to the local basin, but is lost through leakage, evaporation or being incorporated into products.  This is how P&G and Facebook say they define consumption.  In other cases, it isn’t always immediately clear.

Things also quickly become complicated when specifying what it means to ‘restore’ water, which will probably refer to different things in different places.  In its water strategy, P&G says restoring is best defined as “improving, managing, or protecting water”.  Examples of possible restoration projects it gives include managing wetlands, reforesting land, improving irrigation systems, as well as stopping leaks and supporting conservation programs.  Such measures, P&G says, help protect ecosystems, recharge groundwater supplies, reduce the amount of water diverted, and improve water quality.

Measuring the effectiveness of such activities is also tricky.  An important organization here is the World Resources Institute (WRI), which lists working towards a water-secure future as one of its main priorities.  The WRI has developed a standardized methodology to quantify and communicate water stewardship activities[17], used by companies such as Facebook.  It has also worked with individual companies, including P&G and the food giant Cargill, to develop water strategies and targets.

Political challenges

Aside from these technical challenges, global efforts in working towards good water stewardship and water neutrality also face considerable political hurdles – which we can understand by looking at agriculture.  This sector accounts for the majority of the world’s water use: 70%, according to McKinsey[18], compared to 19% of usage arising from industry and just 11% from households.  It is also one of the most difficult in which to tackle water challenges.

The World Bank says factors limiting the improvement of water management in agriculture include “inadequate policies, major institutional under-performance, and financing limitations”[19]. For instance, water basin authorities often have limited capacity to enforce water allocations, and most governments and water users do not invest enough in irrigation and drainage systems. While individual projects funded by the World Bank have led to improvements, the bank acknowledges that meeting future challenges will require “a thorough reconsideration of how water is managed in the agricultural sector”.  In a similar vein, the OECD warns the challenges ahead that relate to managing water in agriculture are “both extremely complex and locally diverse”[20].  It is calling for governments to act to strengthen regulations, create incentives for farmers and limit excessive water use.

Collaboration is critical

Clearly there are formidable hurdles to developing better water stewardship and working towards water neutrality.  But there are also positive developments.

Illustration by Graeme Mackay

At Abdul Latif Jameel are proud to be playing a part in some of these, through Almar Water Solutions.  Almar Water Solutions develops technological solutions that respond to water-related challenges and manage water resources efficiently to build more resilient and sustainable societies. 

Its focus is on non-conventional water solutions, such as desalination and reuse, in both the municipal and industrial sectors, implementing them with a firm commitment to quality, innovation and sustainability.  In March 2023, for example, the company finalized a contract, together with other partners, to develop a water treatment plant to support the Zuluf Onshore oil facilities project in the Arabian Gulf, significantly reducing its water footprint.  This follows its work on other significant water infrastructure projects, such as Shuqaiq 3, one of the world’s largest reverse osmosis desalination plants, on the coast of the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia – and which was recognized in the Desalination Plant of the Year category at the 2023 Global Water Awards.

Shuqaiq 3 IWP, on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia, with a capacity of 450,000 m³/day, is one of the largest reverse osmosis desalination plants in the world, supplying the population the agricultural and industrial activities of the provinces of Asir and Jizan, home to nearly 4 million people.

Harnessing the potential of technology like desalination and treatment is undoubtedly part of the answer to addressing global water challenges.  But ultimately, we need political as well as technical solutions.  Successful water stewardship depends on effective cooperation between numerous stakeholders such as national water companies, water utilities, regulators, and agricultural producers.  Following the 2023 UN Water Conference, UNESCO said that “nearly every water-related intervention involves some kind of cooperation,” arguing that boosting international co-operation is the “only way to prevent a global water crisis in the coming decades”[21].

In recent years, there has been growing momentum towards working together internationally.  The UN Global Compact’s CEO Water Mandate is a platform for businesses to commit to action in six areas of water stewardship and report annually on their progress.  The 240 companies signed up to the mandate include Coca-Cola, Nestle and other major corporations.  Dozens of these have also joined the mandate’s Water Resilience Coalition, an initiative launched in 2020 that aims to achieve a positive water impact by 2030 through collective actions in more than 100 water-stressed basins.

Programs like these suggest that major global businesses increasingly understand the importance of effective water stewardship.  But UNESCO’s World Water Development Report[22] emphasizes that successful solutions are likely to involve governments, communities and citizens as well as corporations.  

Water funds are one such approach.  These are financing schemes that bring together water users – such as businesses, cities and utilities – to invest in improvement projects ‘upstream’ and have had success in countries such as Kenya and Mexico.  In the latter, since 2013 the Monterrey Water Fund has helped maintain water quality, reduce flooding, and restore natural habitats.

Progress in developing more co-operation such as this cannot come soon enough.  As Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s director-general, stated at the 2023 UN Water Conference[23]: “Water is our common future and it is essential to act together to share it equitably and manage it sustainably.”

As I see it, the next necessary step is daunting but clear.  Across the world, the different people and organizations with a stake in maintaining clean, reliable water sources must come together to reach a shared understanding of what this would involve.  If we can do this, we will give ourselves the best possible chance of tackling the situation with the urgency it demands.

























Cartoon illustration by Graeme Mackay