Business Must Tie Water to Climate Change

by | Aug 19, 2009

bjorn-mug2Nearly 2,500 people from 136 countries are gathering this week in my home town of Stockholm, a city of islands and water, for the nineteenth annual World Water Week. Scientists, policymakers, business leaders, NGOs and media have come together to debate all things water – scarcity, access, infrastructure and management – and its relation to climate change.

The conference has just begun, and already three themes have emerged:

1. Climate change = water change.

As we’ve noted before, energy, climate and water are inextricably linked, and in these months of intense debate on seminal climate legislation (particularly in the United States) and with the upcoming COP 15, water as an issue is increasing in priority.

In fact, Circle of Blue (full disclosure: ITT often works with Circle of Blue) and GlobeScan released a survey revealing that water is, for much of the world’s population, of greater concern than climate change. Those of us in the private sector should also note that in nearly every country surveyed, a majority held companies as well as government responsible for ensuring clean water.

What this says to me is that as we look to reduce our carbon footprint, we must also address our impact on water – our water footprint – and vice versa.

2. The need to better manage water resources.

What is becoming increasingly apparent is that we – every country, nearly every municipality – have to become better at managing water. As Professor Richard Carter of WaterAid said, “We need to relearn how to manage water in an integrated way.”

This can mean many things – from being, as ITT’s John Williamson said, “intellectually honest” about the need to change the way we view water to investing significantly more (hundreds of billions more) in aging, decaying infrastructure, which may require each of us to pay the “real” price of water. We must also address the pollution that makes even plentiful water unavailable to so many people.

3. The emergence of sanitation as an issue separate from water.

We often think of sanitation and hygiene as an aspect of the water issue. Sanitation is indeed a critical issue, and one in which many companies are involved. What I’ve been hearing this week, however, is that in the effort to promote sanitation, water is only one aspect of the problem. It is fair to say that the real issue is the need for concerted public education – to wash hands, for example – and the need to adapt programs to cultural norms.

Dr. William T. Muhairwe, of the National Water and Sewerage Corporation of Uganda, noted that in some parts of Africa, toilets are shunned for reasons of tradition, and insisting on their use can therefore be counterproductive. It will be interesting to see where this important debate goes in coming years.

All in all, and as I said to a partner earlier today, it’s an exciting time to be working in water. What matters most is that so many people from so many different walks of life have come together to not only debate this issue, but to learn from one another – and act.

More to come.

Bjorn Von Euler, director of corporate philanthropy for ITT Corp., attended the World Water Week proceedings in Stockholm, Sweden. He is writing a series of reports on the event for Environmental Leader.

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