Cover Story: Parched planet – Leading in a world with less water

Let’s be clear. This is not an alarmist piece about pending water wars. No nations have gone to war specifically over water for hundreds, some researchers say thousands, of years. Even at the height of fighting in the Kashmir, India and Pakistan still managed measure of cooperation over their shared water resources albeit with some dirty tricks thrown in for good measure. Likewise, Israel and Jordan, formally at war for many decades, have cooperated on the management of their shared water resources.
Yet geopolitical tension may be just one manifestation of water-constrained future. The United Nations notes the world population has doubled since 1950 while water usage has trebled. It predicts we could be squashing fifth more people onto planet earth in the next 20 years. And half of us will face water vulnerability by 2030.
It’s no coincidence that “rivalry” stems from “rivalis” or “one using the same river as another”. Water is the ultimate commodity. We all need it and there’s no substitute.
As with other commodities, the drivers behind any future water scarcity are complex and highly interrelated. So, too, may be the solutions. (See box stories “Braided themes” and “Water, water, everywhere”.)
For now, the main lines of tension tend to be forming within countries, often between different user groups and often for good reason. Government, NGOs, industry, agriculture, townies, local communities, boaties, fisherfolk and others all want to dip into the same pond.
Here in New Zealand, anyone doubting the number and complexity of stakeholders in this issue need only check the list of Land and Water Forum members who span everyone from industry groups, environmental and recreational NGOs, to iwi, scientists, and host of other organisations with an interest in freshwater and land management.
Despite the National Party’s best endeavours, our current national conversation about water is also becoming entangled with the debate about the pending part-sale of state-owned energy companies, as Mighty River Power is prepped to be the first to go on the block.
Further focusing minds, last month, lawyer Donna Hall lodged the “national water and geothermal claim” in the Waitangi Tribunal. Filed on behalf of Sir Graham Latimer, the New Zealand Maori Council and “all Maori”, it says the Crown has breached the Treaty of Waitangi by failing to recognise Maori control and rangatiratanga over fresh water resources. It accuses the Crown of expropriating these resources without Maori consent and without providing compensation.
It’s as plain as the rain on Kiwi statutory holiday that we will increasingly need robust water-related policies in place to ensure balance of economic, social, recreational and environmental needs.
A recent Deloitte report “Water Tight 2012: The top issues in the global water sector” states that while the challenge of increased competition for water is global, the issues must be resolved on local level by governments, businesses, non-governmental organisations and domestic consumers all working together.
The report outlines eight key themes around which much discussion, and work, will inevitably focus (see box story “Braided themes”).
Paul Callow, infrastructure leader for Deloitte New Zealand, says that while the global Deloitte group has been looking at water issues for the past decade or so, it’s only recently that water scarcity has started to bubble up in wider non-specialist circles.
One of New Zealand’s problems, he says, is that although we sure have plenty of rainfall, we’re sub-optimising our water resource. Individual bore holes, and small community schemes and irrigation systems don’t help. “You end up with patchwork that doesn’t make particularly efficient use of the underlying resource.”
Given our high rainfall and lush landscape, here in New Zealand it’s often hard to imagine the dry patch spreading over the horizon. (Globally, for example, most inter-state tension is in the Middle East which has five percent of the world’s population and just one percent of global freshwater.) Economic, business and individual interconnectedness will put paid to such isolationist thinking.
Callow says New Zealand may never become global leader in providing smart meter technology for water but we could be at the leading edge with how we use such technology, even if it comes from elsewhere.
Over in their office by Lake Pupuke on Auckland’s North Shore, Paul Brownsey and John Berry have also long been steeped in conversations about water. As executive directors of Pathfinder Asset Management, they help investors put their money into the water industry through series of specialist global and regional indices. These end-companies span everything from water treatment, storage and distribution, to irrigation, equipment manufacturing and specialist construction.
Last year, Brownsey warned packed roomful of investors at Responsible Investment Briefing in Auckland, that any summary of the world’s water-related challenges can sound quite bleak.
Growing global demographics look set to collide with burgeoning industrialisation as country-dwellers seek new lives in towns and cities. “In 2010 more people globally lived in an urban rather than rural environment for the first time ever,” he says, “and by 2030, the UN expects more than 60 percent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas.”
All of which means more need for water to produce the urban infrastructure and less land devoted to agriculture: our biggest collective water-related headache. For agriculture, as Brownsey points out, is extremely water-intensive. “On average, it takes around one litre of water to produce one calorie of food,” he says. “A person requires 1800 calories of food per day just to survive. So that implies on average, at subsistence level, we need two tonnes of water per person per day.”
Like it or not, he says, the genetically modified debate is going to get louder in coming years if we are to feed the world’s population.
Deloitte’s Callow says that in water-constrained future the role of business will remain what it’s always been: to go out and create economic wellbeing for people. For businesses that use water the onus will be on efficiency and environmental responsibility.
“However, the role of business as supplier of water is the area where there’s the most opportunity to make contribution in New Zealand,” he says.
More than mindful that privatisation of water remains huge political issue, he suggests there could be role for private capital in certain parts of the water sector to drive better performance from an environmental and production-efficiency point of view.
Callow anticipates model for New Zealand water company ownership that blends the best of public and private ownership, perhaps bringing together “the discipline of private sector capital with the role of government as regulator and setter of environmental standards”.
Meanwhile, at the individual company level, the notion of scarcity is already opening up new thinking around new products that are either created from fewer resources or that allow end-consumers to gobble up fewer resources while using them.
Procter & Gamble, for example, is developing cleaning and laundry products that use less water, cold water, non-potable water and even salt water. Its new product development water sustainability guidelines tell staff: “As you improve current products, or develop new-to-the-world products and services, think about how you could apply our technologies to use less water, use water differently, or use no water at all.”
Similarly Coca-Cola, big water guzzler with network of over 1000 manufacturing plants in nearly 200 countries, uses source protection planning programme to reduce its water costs, improve the health of local ecosystems and benefit the communities where it operates.
Despite our high rainfall, growing number of companies in New Zealand are getting wise about

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