WaterAid’s Jonathan Farr says the latest IPCC report highlights the importance of adaptation, and business has a crucial role to play

Last month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its report on the challenges of limiting global warming to a more ambitious 1.5°C rather than 2°C, and the consequences of exceeding it.

It made stark warnings that highlight the need to urgently cut carbon pollution, and spelled out the threat to the world’s water. The regions at disproportionately higher risk include Arctic ecosystems, dryland regions, small-island developing states, and least developed countries. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C could reduce the number of people both exposed to climate-related risks and susceptible to poverty by up to several hundred million by 2050, and reduce the proportion of the world population exposed to a climate-change induced increase in water stress by up to 50%.

A 1.5C increase is locked in, and some have even dubbed that figure as magical thinking

This was followed by an even starker warning from China Water Risk. The report No Water No Growth looked at specific threats to Asia’s 10 mighty rivers, on which 40% of the population depend, such as over-abstraction, pollution, and environmental degradation – all exacerbated by climate change.

And a recent report from NASA shows that groundwater in many regions – including cities and villages in India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, southern Madagascar,  southern Mozambique and parts of California and Australia – is severely depleting as climate change, alongside other factors, takes hold.

A global upgrade in water services is required. Credit: Wateraid


The IPCC’s report makes it clear that a minimum of 1.5°C increase is locked in, and some have even dubbed that figure as “magical thinking”. There have been positive signs around carbon reduction, with the breath-taking switch to renewable energy from fossil fuels not only cutting pollution but dramatically reducing water use too, but the cuts still aren’t happening fast enough. We need to see more spending on mitigation, and on top of this it’s time to get serious about spending on adaptation, which in 2016 amounted to $23bn, just 6% of total climate finance.

We need to see a paradigm shift in political will, combined with unparalleled ambition and urgency, if we are to meet this challenge for a global upgrade in water services and systems.

Business and investors will play a vital role. By 2030, investment in water and sanitation infrastructure will need to be around $900bn-$1.5trn per year, roughly 20% of the total investment required for global infrastructure. About 70% of this will be in the global south with a large share in rapidly growing urban areas.

HSBC has been working with Earthwatch, WaterAid and WWF to support projects that conserve clean water source

Some companies are already taking action. Last November, HSBC announced renewed targets and commitments to a low carbon future, in addition to other sustainability initiatives. Since 2012, HSBC has worked with Earthwatch, WaterAid and WWF through the HSBC Water Programme to support projects globally that promote and conserve clean water sources. The initiative was built on the reality that water is essential to helping communities thrive and building national economies.

Climate resilience is a core part of WaterAid's work with HSBC in Bangladesh, building climate-resilient clean water supplies in places like Dacope, where water supplies are depleting as a result of climate change, while improving the quality and accessibility of water sources. Implementing measures such as raising water points above flood levels and running hygiene promotion to help reduce the spread of waterborne diseases prevalent after flooding can have a huge impact on alleviating the effects of climate change. The security of clean water is enabling children to stay in school, and small businesses to continue growing.

This initiative is reflective of a shift in private-NGO partnerships, in which we are seeing progressive companies changing perspectives from engagement with the charity sector as a philanthropic issue to a core business priority. HSBC is embedding sustainability and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) management elements within its lending strategies to drive greater action on key issues such as water security and climate change.

Businesses can have potentially negative environmental and social impacts that need to be managed through responsible business practices and standards, for example, by ensuring that businesses ensure adequate WASH in the workplace as a minimum.

It is estimated that every dollar invested in water and sanitation returns $4 in increased productivity. Diageo, Gap Inc and Unilever worked with WaterAid to develop a Business Case for WASH,a guide to help companies understand and measure the economic benefits of investing in water, sanitation and hygiene, and thereby make the case for further investment while also encouraging their supply chains to take action.
HSBC and WaterAid are now putting the guide into practice, with the launch of a three-year project to deliver essential water and sanitation services in apparel factories and nearby communities in Bangladesh and India operating within their supply chain.

Access to safe water does not just mean avoiding tragedy. It is transformative for communities

Future-proofing in a changing climate and ensuring water resilience is important for business continuity; when companies are able to embed WASH considerations within their water strategy, this often facilitates a more holistic water management approach.

Diageo is providing leadership in this area and has developed a Water Blueprint. The strategy aims to reduce water use through a 50% improvement in water-use efficiency, as well as returning 100% of wastewater from its operations to the environment safely, and replenishing the amount of water used in its final products in water-stressed areas.  Community water management and WASH considerations are also embedded within the strategy.

The costs of climate change are already with us, but the benefits of taking action are hopefully not too far away. Access to safe water does not just mean avoiding tragedy, it is transformative for communities, potentially bringing healthier lives, massively increased economic prospects, and sustainable cities, towns and communities for hundreds of millions of people.

 Jonathan Farr is senior policy analyst for WaterAid