Industrial leadership, a new monitoring initiative and the tiny country of Singapore all show it is possible to row against the tide of water stress

Singapore is a miracle. The tiny republic manages to cram 5.4 million people onto an area not much larger than the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. Its neighbours are mainly poor countries, but it is one of the world’s richest. And amazingly, Singapore manages to stay wealthy while almost entirely lacking one of the basic necessities for any society: water.

It is the fourth most water-stressed country in the world, according to rankings and maps published recently by Aqueduct, a project of the World Resources Institute (WRI). Singapore survives because it meets 20% of its water needs through captured rainwater, desalinates sea water to produce 10%, and recycles grey water for a further 30%. The remaining 40% is imported from Malaysia.

Paul Reig, a WRI associate working on Aqueduct, sums it up by saying that Singapore “is known as an excellent water manager”.

But globally, water stress is on the rise as demand outstrips supply, as agricultural and energy-related water consumption increases to keep pace with the rising population, and as water resources become harder to manage because of changing environmental conditions. If they are to cope, countries and companies will increasingly have to think like Singapore.

The Aqueduct rankings claim to be the first to show water stress by country, and also break down risk by river basin. “Extreme” stress is felt by a swathe of arid countries and territories from the western Sahara through north Africa and the Middle East to Pakistan. But “high” stress is also evident in a number of wealthy countries, including Australia, Belgium, Italy and Japan.

Flooding stressful too

Many more countries, including the UK, face medium to high stress. It’s not just a question of shortages. Economies can also be damaged by too much water – extreme rainfall and floods.

The response, says Reig, should be planning and cooperation. “Governments should invest in water-saving technologies and responsible management while pursuing international agreements.”

Companies, meanwhile, should assess the risks they face, and invest accordingly. They can “pursue partnerships with other water users, including surrounding businesses, cities and farms”, and should bear in mind that “very water-intensive companies are being held responsible for the state of water resources and access to sanitation in communities they operate in,” Reig adds.

Bernard Guirkinger, senior executive vice-president of French utility Suez and member of the board of governors of thinktank the World Water Council, says that, if anything, companies are more alert than governments to water risk.

Water-intensive sectors such as mining and food are “all preoccupied and working on the issue already”. But “the political commitment to water is insufficient”, with all levels of government falling short – something with which recent flood victims in the UK, and elsewhere, might agree.

The basic aim for companies should be to cut consumption, Guirkinger says. Suppliers and customers alike should employ all the tools in their armoury: fixing leaks, reusing and recycling, introducing smart metering. Companies that have not yet done so should also factor water into their sustainability plans. Water is particularly crucial for assessing supply chain risk, especially in the most water-stressed countries. The Aqueduct mapping tool provides an good starting point for analysing the constraints.

Environment  Industrial leadership  initiative  Singapore  water supply 

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