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In part 2 of his monthly review of sustainability news, Oliver Balch looks at calls for governments to work together to tackle growing water stress, efforts by Levi Strauss and Primark to reduce water use in their supply chains, and heightened public awareness of climate change
By 2050, more than half of the world’s population will live in water-scarce regions. That is the pending reality driving the urgency of a new report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Another central statistic in the 109-page Blue Peace Index report relates to the importance of transboundary rivers; namely, that such rivers supply three-fifths (60%) of all the world’s freshwater. The EIU’s report analyses 24 countries across five transboundary basins: the Amazon, Mekong, Senegal, Sava and Tigris-Euphrates. The report’s authors note that the average global availability of renewable freshwater has dwindled to less than 6,000 cubic metres per person per year, a drop of two-fifths since the 1970s.
Part of the current water stress reflects a success story, with access to safe drinking water increasing from 61% of the world’s population in 2000 to 71% today (though one in four people still lack access to safely managed drinking water services, and two in three to safely managed sanitation services).
The far bigger factor is the increase in water use linked to farming, which accounts for almost 70% of total global water withdrawals. Irrigated food production is predicted to increase by more than 50% by 2050 (this is on top of a more than doubling of food production since the late 1980s). A key recommendation of the EIU report is to promote greater transboundary cooperation. At present, only 84 of the estimated 286 transboundary river and lake basins have joint water management bodies in place, a ratio that reduces to nine out of more than 350 in the case of transboundary aquifers.
Not all countries are affected by the same degree of supply-demand imbalance when it comes to water. In its newly updated version of its Global Water Risk Atlas, the World Resources Institute (WRI) identifies 17 countries that are home to “extremely high” water stress. A dozen of these are located in the Middle East and North Africa. Of particular concern is the situation in India. The world’s second most populous nation ranks in 13th place in WRI’s list of the most water-stressed nations. A number of the major rivers in northern India flow from or into the neighbouring states of Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.
Reduction in industrial use of water will be critical to water resilience in the future. Welcome, therefore, is a new plan from jeans manufacturer Levi Strauss to cut water consumption across its business and supply chain. The Water Action Strategy aims to halve water use across Levi’s manufacturing sites in high-stress areas by 2025 (against a 2018 baseline). The company says its “Water<Less” manufacturing technique has already helped save 3bn litres of water since being introduced in 2011.
Primark also announced this week a significant expansion of its Sustainable Cotton Programme with CottonConnect, with plans to train more than 160,000 independent cotton farmers in methods to cut water and chemical use by the end of 2022. This represents a five-fold increase on the programme’s current size. Half of the new recruits will be in China – one of the largest cotton-growing countries in the world and a key sourcing location for Primark.
This is none too soon. Authoritative estimates suggest that producing one kilogram of cotton – equivalent to the weight of a pair of jeans – can require up to 20,000 litres of water. According to the data disclosure organisation CDP, industrial water use accounts for almost one fifth (19%) of all water consumption. However, despite 93% of companies saying they face water-related risks, only 31 of the nearly 800 large companies studied by CDP make its “A List” for risk management and transparency. See also As global water crisis looms, business as usual is no longer an option.
The penny drops as the thermometer rises
FINALLY, THE penny seems to be dropping on climate change. An opinion survey conducted by pollster Ipsos MORI finds that over eight in 10 (85%) of Britons are worried about climate change, with around half (52%) describing themselves as “very concerned” (up from a mere 18% in 2014). Helping drive this mind shift is the growing reality of the world’s changing temperatures. Nearly three in four (73%) of the 1,007 adults surveyed say that they are already feeling the effects of climate change, a jump of 32 percentage points on the same survey in 2010. The timing of this poll may well have influenced the results, coming as it did on the back of the UK’s hottest July day in recorded history: 38.1°C, on 25th July. The record is just shy of the country’s hottest ever day, of 38.5°C, recorded in August 2003.
The UK was not alone for posting record temperatures. According to the US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), average global land and sea temperatures in July were the highest in 140 years of record-keeping. The global average monthly temperature of 16.53°C was 0.03°C more than the previous record set in July 2016. When compared with the average for the last century, the difference is staggering, with July 2019 ranking 0.95°C warmer. NOAA data show that nine of the 10 hottest Julys ever have occurred since 2005. Nor can it be written off as a freak example. July 2019 marked the 415th consecutive month in which the registered global temperature exceeded the long-term average.
Also slowly waking up to our changing climate is the global financial services industry. According to a new study released by the software firm Datamaran, one-third of financial services companies now place a high emphasis on climate change in their annual financial reports. This is up from fewer than one in seven (14%) in 2016. Admittedly, Datamaran’s base sample is slightly skewed. The firm focused its analysis on the reports of those companies that publicly back the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures. The equivalent figure for non-participating financial companies is closer to one fifth (19%). All the same, given the proportion stood at a mere 10% in 2016, this represents an upward trend.
This article is part of the September CSR Cheat Sheet round-up. See also: