This past month, I spent a day engaging in thought-provoking dialogue at the Deloitte Davos Experience. The issues discussed each year at the World Economic Forum provide a context for the most important challenges of our time. I’d like to share with you a few data points on water stewardship that was the starting point for our dialogue. You should begin to think about the impact water stewardship will have on both your business and the world environment. This issue has global and local consequences for all businesses. The information should be studied by every board when it reviews strategic planning and global emerging markets.
Water stewardship was presented by William Sarni, Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Director and Practice Leader for Enterprise Water Strategy, Sustainability and Climate Change. The conversation centered around three charts of the globe at different times reflecting water availability in 1975, 2000 and then projected to the year 2025. It became abundantly clear that water shortages in addition to northern Africa and India, could well occur in a very large area of the Southwest region of the United States, Australia, the entire Middle East and Northern China by 2025. Half of the world’s population will experience water scarcity by 2030.
Today, almost 1 billion people globally lack access to clean water. This is almost 3X the population of the United States. 3.5 million people die each year from water-related disease and the water and sanitation crisis claims more lives through disease than any war claims through guns. Almost 50% of the world’s developing population, including 2.5 billion people , lack improved sanitation facilities. More people have mobile phones than toilets!
The issues of developing and implementing high-value sustainability programs and integrating diverse business and technical skills related to resource management became the subject of our conversation. The notion of increasing competition for water was evident. Fascinating data points were the amount of water content required to produce selected products – 1 sheet of paper (10 liters), 1 cup of tea (30 liters), 1 pair of jeans (3,480 liters) and 1 kg of beef (15,500 liters). Adding to the complexity of the production of these products is that the products a company sells is largely determined by their supply chain, not their internal operations.
In a study of 302 of the world’s 500 largest companies, focusing on sectors that are water-intensive, only 53% of those surveyed understand “indirect” or supply chain-related water risks. Half believe their water-risk horizon is between one and five years and almost 40% are already experiencing its impact. 60% have set water-related performance targets and 62% have identified significant water-related business opportunities.
Forward thinking companies are putting the issues on the table around transporting water, utilization of water, how it is being used and where and when it will be needed. Boardrooms are analyzing their water footprint and risks going forward. On the horizon is the pricing of water and price increases based upon lack of efficiencies, particularly in industries like beverage and agricultural companies, where data collection and monitoring will be required. What are the implications for food prices and other products requiring significant water content?
In the C-Suite, very different players are being put together including CFOs, Chief Sustainability Officers, COOs, CEOs and people responsible for strategy within organizations. Where to locate new plants based on water considerations and how to better manage the ones that exist through recycling water or shutting them down throughout the year are all new areas of discussion. The days of viewing water as a readily accessible and inexpensive global resource is nearing to an end. There are branding issues around water as well. Companies can develop and implement strategies that create a meaningful presence as good corporate citizens or choose riskier strategies that can have a negative impact on reputation which can impact a company’s total value.
On a positive note, water scarcity can be a driver of innovation in areas such as leakage detection and repair, recycling, desalination and data analytics as well as the development of transformative technologies and ways of working to help companies with better water management and bottom line improvements. There will be greater transparency into how companies are addressing these challenges and mitigating risks. Boards need to become increasingly aware of the importance of managing their company’s water footprint and engaging the proper stakeholders. The next step is evaluating risks and opportunities and then developing and executing an enterprise-wide water stewardship program. No small task, but a new requirement for addressing the transformational challenges of our global world.
Stuart R. Levine is chairman and CEO of Stuart Levine & Associates, a strategy, leadership and governance consulting firm. He serves on the board of Broadridge Financial Solutions, Single Touch Systems, Inc and is lead director of J. D’Addario & Co. Inc. and director of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System.