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In the Face of Growing Risks, Every Day Is a World Water Day

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the first World Water Day, an international celebration designed to draw attention to the importance of freshwater resources. However, for a large and growing proportion of the world’s population, every day is a World Water Day. Difficult, complex water challenges including drought, groundwater depletion, pollution, and clean drinking water availability are growing in urgency and seriousness all around the world. Some even argue that we should boycott World Water Day – that our water problems are too serious to try and confine to a single day.

Although it’s true that we must keep water in mind during the other 364 days of the year, World Water Day can be useful. It helps raise awareness and serves as an annual reminder of the water problems we must collectively solve. Plus, picking a single theme – this year’s is cooperation – helps break down a very complex topic into more accessible, comprehensible pieces.

In keeping with the theme of helping make complex issues more approachable and understandable, WRI is marking this year’s World Water Day by launching the first in a new series of videos we’re calling “What’s the Big Idea?” These brief videos will feature WRI staff members explaining some of the complex, global challenges we are working to understand and solve. Our first “What’s the Big Idea?” video explains the concept of water risk and the array of challenges it poses. We also highlight a potential solution: WRI’s Aqueduct mapping tool, which helps companies, investors, governments, and others better understand and manage their water risks.

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What's the Big Idea? Measuring and Mapping Water Risk

Water scarcity is one of the defining issues of the 21st century. In its Global Risks 2013 report, the World Economic Forum identified water supply crises as one of the highest impact and most likely risks facing the planet.

What’s the Difference Between Water Use and Water Consumption?

In January, Brian Richter, director of freshwater strategies at The Nature Conservancy, spelled out four water resolutions through a thought-provoking series of blog posts. One of those resolutions was to better understand and communicate the differences between water use and water consumption. This is a particularly important issue, as there has been a lot of discussion lately about water scarcity, water stress, and the risks associated with them.

So what do ”water use” and “water consumption” mean?

  • “Water use” describes the total amount of water withdrawn from its source to be used. Measures of water usage help evaluate the level of demand from industrial, agricultural, and domestic users. For example, a manufacturing plant might require 10,000 gallons of freshwater a day for cooling, running, or cleaning its equipment. Even if the plant returns 95 percent of that water to the watershed, the plant needs all 10,000 gallons to operate.

  • “Water consumption” is the portion of water use that is not returned to the original water source after being withdrawn. Consumption occurs when water is lost into the atmosphere through evaporation or incorporated into a product or plant (such as a corn stalk) and is no longer available for reuse. Water consumption is particularly relevant when analyzing water scarcity and the impact of human activities on water availability. For example, irrigated agriculture accounts for 70 percent of water use worldwide and almost 50 percent of that is lost, either evaporated into the atmosphere or transpired through plant leaves.

The New Language of Sustainability: Risk and Resilience

On February 20, WRI President Andrew Steer participated in event with GreenBiz CEO Joel Makower at the annual GreenBiz summit in New York City. This post builds off that discussion.

Sustainability has become a major business buzzword in recent years. For many, though, it’s still viewed as a philanthropic initiative, disconnected from a company’s core goals, or even a burden that competes with other strategic priorities. That must change.

Fortunately, more leaders are recognizing sustainability risks. At the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, leaders in business, government, academia, and civil society named climate change and water supply as two of the top five global risks facing companies today—and with good reason.

Extreme weather and climate impacts are becoming increasingly common and carrying a significant economic toll. According to the insurance group Munich Re, the number of weather-related loss events over the past three decades has quintupled in North America, quadrupled in Asia, and increased in Africa, Europe, and South America. In the United States alone, 11 events crossed the $1 billion mark in losses in 2012. Hurricane Sandy cost U.S. taxpayers more than $60 billion, striking at the heart of a heavily populated business and financial zone. And, drought in the United States is expected to cost 1 percent of the annual GDP, making it one of the most expensive natural disasters in the country’s history.

Likewise, water risks are increasingly on companies’ radars. More than 1.2 billion people are already facing water scarcity. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will likely experience water stress. According to a 2012 report by the Carbon Disclosure Project, the associated costs of water events for some companies reached $200 million, up 38 percent from the previous year.

So, how can companies link these risks to corporate strategy? How can they push the management of sustainability issues into the center of businesses’ strategic decision-making?

Embracing Ecological Progress in China

This post originally appeared on ChinaDaily.com.

Over the past two decades, the world has witnessed a remarkable period of economic and human development: More than 2 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water; life expectancy has increased by approximately five years; more children are going to school, with 90 percent enrolled in primary education; and per capita income levels have doubled across developing countries.

China has experienced an even more profound transformation during this period. The country has sustained an annual GDP growth of around 10 percent. Five hundred million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. People's lives have visibly improved and there are more opportunities for them.

Yet, many challenges remain. With the world's expanding population, rapid economic growth, and booming middle class, the pressure on natural resources is mounting. The truth is the world is on an unsustainable path.

China is part of this problem, but it also must be part of the solution. China faces real challenges when it comes to the environment and natural resources. Demand for water is rapidly outpacing supply, with food, energy, and domestic use intensifying for this scarce resource. The need for affordable and clean energy is on the rise. China's rapidly expanding urban population is having a significant impact on transportation, energy, and water infrastructure.

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