Water Footprinting: Identifying & addressing water risks in the value chain



Posted on 17 August 2009  | 
Water footprinting report cover page
© WWF / SAB MillerEnlarge

Anyone enduring this year’s British summer might be forgiven for questioning the fact that freshwater is becoming one of the most precious commodities on the planet – but it’s true. It’s also a reason why WWF’s partnership with SABMiller, one of the world’s largest brewers, has a particular importance.

In the past century alone, the world’s consumption of water has grown at about twice the rate of population expansion. That’s largely due to growing agricultural and industrial demand. It also has much to do with people’s improved lifestyles and leisure activities – which often include relaxing with a beer or two.

The worldwide brewing industry, including SABMiller, consumes huge quantities of water to make the product that billions of people enjoy every day.

However, the company has declared water to be one of its 10 sustainable development priorities, and has been working with WWF in South Africa, Colombia and Honduras to encourage better water management in and around its operations. In 2008 it also joined WWF in becoming a founder member of the Water Footprint Network, an organisation that is leading the way in devising practical tools that can be used to promote the sustainable, fair and efficient use of freshwater resources throughout the world. “After all, water is scarce because humans make it scarce,” declares Stuart Orr, WWF International’s freshwater manager. “As we’ve already discovered through our own work on water footprint, it’s not only how much, but often when and where water is taken that matters.”

SABMiller aims to reduce water consumption in its operations to an average of 3.5 litres to make a litre of beer, saving some 20 billion litres of water a year by 2015.

“In an increasingly water-constrained world, it’s critical that we become as efficient as possible, whilst working with communities to protect water resources,” says SABMiller chief executive Graham Mackay. “This is an extremely challenging but achievable target, and sets a new industry benchmark.”

Dax Lovegrove, WWF-UK’s head of business and industry, agrees. “The company shows a clear understanding of water issues that only a handful of multinationals have demonstrated,” he declares. “This is an important step forward in terms of business responsibility towards the environment.”

Freshwater is essential for life on Earth. Although three-quarters of the planet may be covered in water, most of this is salt water and undrinkable. A minuscule 2.5% is freshwater, and much of that is ice. Yet whenever we in the developed world turn on a tap or a hosepipe, this colourless, odourless liquid gushes forth in litres – it’s seemingly limitless, it’s always there, and we take it for granted.

The average person in the UK uses approximately 150 litres of tap water a day (for baths, showers, dishwashers, gardening and so-on) – yet some 700 million people live in regions where water-stress is already a severe problem. With climate change increasing the uncertainty of water supplies, and with population growth and changing consumption patterns increasing pressure on water resources, the UN has forecast that more than 3 billion people could be living in water-stressed countries by 2025.

All the more reason why the Water Footprint Network needs to succeed. Thanks to the participation of global organisations such as WWF and SABMiller, it’s off to a strong start. Already, numerous companies are testing their own water consumption levels and analysing the results with an eye on sustainable water management. And that’s the crux: just as the widely accepted carbon footprint concept has helped towns, cities, businesses and consumers to understand the level of greenhouse gas emissions created by their activities, so water footprinting is creating awareness of how and where this life-giving liquid resource is used.

As a contribution towards this understanding, WWF and SABMiller are publishing a joint report* which speaks in straightforward terms: “If water footprinting is applied well it can be very useful from a business perspective, helping identify the scale of water use in water scarce areas and the potential business risks that arise. The key test of a water footprint is whether it helps a business to take better operational decisions concerning how it manages its plants, how it works with suppliers and how it engages with governments, to reduce business risk and improve environmental sustainability.”

So a water footprint must not only look at the total water use in litres of water per unit of product, but it must also consider where it’s used, what proportion of the area’s total water resource it represents, and whether over-use creates risks to the environment, communities and businesses now or in the future. “It’s the only way a water footprint can be meaningful,” the report declares.

As the world’s population increases, and the effects of climate change slowly but surely take hold, the free flow of abundant freshwater can never more be taken for granted. Improved water management techniques are now essential for the well-being of people, the environment, the business world and the global economy.

WWF and SABMiller are playing their full part in developing and improving those techniques, and we will keep you posted on developments in future.

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