This report details three thought provoking scenarios as to what the world might look like in 2025, a time period that is closer than you think. It is certainly within the long range strategic planning timeframe and the report provides a useful tool for governments and businesses alike when thinking about water management. For those organisations not yet thinking about water management it raises compelling proposals as to why they should.
The report focuses on scenarios rather than predictions and asks ‘what if’ rather than ‘what will’.
Involving working and reference groups from across the globe Business in the world of water paints three scenarios:
H – hydro the story of efficiency
2 – rivers the story of security; and
O – oceans the story of interconnectivity
Hydro – the story of efficiency
This scenario focuses on developing economies, in particular China. It explores the strain of rapid industrialisation and growth on water resources – the need to provide water and sanitation to burgeoning city centres; and the need to supply to manufacturers and energy producers whilst still leaving sufficient levels in rural areas to support food production.
Overlaid with declining rainfall, freak storms and industrial pollution this story takes us to the brink and back again. From disgruntled farmers and failed crops, polluted water ways and manufacturers forced to close because they simply cannot afford the rising cost of water the story ultimately highlights the power of innovation.
It paints a picture of a country early enough in its development, unhindered by onerous legacy systems and infrastructure and well placed to learn from the mistakes of the past. One that develops technological solutions to improve water efficiency and reduce water contamination before it is too late.
The previous lack of infrastructure becomes an advantage enabling prototypes to be applied swiftly with a focus on localised solutions. Rather than the mega projects of the past there is a shift to site specific technologies tailored to solve local problems from on-site hydro power units to recycling wastewater in individual apartments.
Furthermore is the link between energy and water efficiency and the development of solutions to achieve both including micro-hydro power units in storm sewers and heat recovery from wastewater. Energy efficient desalination plants lead to a rebirth in coastal agricultural and cost effective leak detection systems become commonplace.
But perhaps the big shift is China’s ability to export leading water efficiency technology and localised solutions to the older, most established economies of Europe. The leapfrog effect begins to become a reality and those companies that invested early in China and developed relationships reap the benefits.
Much of the focus in this scenario is on spinning the water cycle more quickly, making the same drop of water available for reuse more quickly to overcome the basic constraints of raw water resources. In essence, getting ‘more value per drop’.
From the brink of being unable to support itself this scenario sees China become a global leader in cost-effective, localised water solutions. It exports these solutions to developed countries and employs them throughout its supply chain in developing countries. It reaps the rewards of a solutions focused approach that recognises the importance of local differences.
Rivers (2) – the story of security
This scenario explores the two sides of water disputes, often literally from opposite sides of the riverbank. It looks at the tension between upstream and downstream users, urban and rural interests, business and governments and industry and governments. On a more positive note it looks at the two ingredients for water prosperity – markets and government policies and the need to solve problems ‘2-gether’.
It defines water security as the means of having access to adequate amounts of quality water at the right time and place to meet the needs of the user. It also includes being sheltered from the impacts of droughts and floods or becoming more resilient to them.
It acknowledges the role of water quality in human hygiene and health, a basic building block that facilitates access to education and opportunity. It argues that if this does not occur then these are not healthy markets for business. Business cannot thrive in thirsty societies.
In fact the poor are most impacted by polluted waters as increased prices for clean water take up more and more of their modest salaries. Alternatively they are forced to spend time away from their families fetching it or face the risk of disease from contaminated water.
Most impacted are the rural poor who use valuable water supplies to grow cash crops for wealthier markets whilst at the same time becoming more vulnerable to commodity prices.
The scene is set for increasing distrust between citizens and government rising out of concerns about water allocation to the private sector. Water is increasingly an election issue as prices increase and middle class families begin to struggle to pay their water bills.
For business, water becomes a license to operate issue and water efficiency and treatment becomes a major focus. Many now believe that corporate citizenship now involves releasing water from the manufacturing process that is cleaner than when they receive it. There is a push for product innovation to create water efficient production processes and products that are more efficient for the end user.
But for many this is not enough and cases of litigation for activities within the supply chain and past actions soar.
Government increasingly enters the ‘other side’ and regulates market mechanisms to ensure sound policies for water allocation, efficiency and pricing. Social tensions emerge from drought related migration and unemployment in older economies increases in response to the rising competitiveness of developing economies. Initiatives to stimulate growth through a reduction in environmental standards are met with fierce opposition as parties realise the only way to sustainable solutions is to work together.
Local public-private partnerships become commonplace as does the factoring in of water allocations into business decisions. However they are still susceptible to misallocations upstream, leading us into the third scenario.
Oceans – the story of interconnectivity
Oceans tell the tale of complex systems and the need for consolidated, considered responses.
This story sees the world gripped by inertia. Whilst a lot of time is devoted to talking about water issues everyone seems crippled by feelings of helplessness and the regional nature of action plans allow many to avoid responsibilities.
A focus on competitive efficiency ignores the need for water efficiency and agriculture in particular remains highly water intensive as poorer countries use up much of their water supply growing food for richer nations. They are effectively exporting embodied water while local populations suffer from chronic shortages. Unfair water practices replace unfair labour practices as a key area of focus for activists.
Increased contamination occurs, firstly from imported vegetables grown using polluted waters and then through the spread of antibiotic resistant genes through bacterial populations in conventional waste water systems.
Terrorist threats to poison the water supply and increased transmission of water borne diseases through increased international travel also raise serious health concerns. Similarly a rise in freak weather events including storms and flooding and changes in temperatures impacting sea levels and glaciers cause added concerns. The impacts of these events are further worsened by deforestation activities that contribute to mudslides that destroy entire villages. Inadequate sewerage networks overflow during storms wiping out local fish populations.
These horrific events lead to a realisation that regional solutions fail to protect against unintended consequences of decisions made elsewhere. Companies and countries alike are required to report their water footprint. A ‘total accounting’ approach is developed to understand the costs of water-displacement and the virtual water content of a product, an economic concept accounting for the amount of water required to produce an item.
Legislation is introduced to promote sustainable watercourse management and past lessons are shared across borders. Water education is enhanced and cap and trade systems are introduced resulting in the creation of virtual water markets. Governments subsidise water saving technology and provide incentives for water conservation within the agricultural sector.
An increasingly complex interchange develops between new market mechanisms, new laws encouraging best practice water management and global governance practices recognising the interdependence of everyone in the world of water.
How to act
The underlying message for organisations from these scenarios is the need to better understand their water dependencies. This includes the use of water within their own activities as well as those of their suppliers. It also factors in the water needs of their customers and constituents and the impacts of price rises and changes in water quality on these groups. It reinforces the need for water issues to be incorporated into strategic planning and risk analysis and builds the case for early engagement with key stakeholders.
The publication can be viewed in its entirety on the WBCSD website.
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