Addressing the global water crisis

By PETER BRABECK-LETMATHE

In recognition of World Water Day tomorrow (March 22), Nestlé SA Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe writes about the need for management of the world's water resources in a sustainable way. He calls on Canadians to focus on how they can help to preserve, protect and strengthen their water systems for the future.

TORONTO, March 21, 2014 /CNW/ - Today, as we mark the 21st anniversary of World Water Day, close to a billion people around the world lack minimal access to water for their most basic needs - hydration, cooking and personal hygiene. According to an article by Gérard Payen, chairman of Aquafed and Member of the United Nations Secretary General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, at least 1.9 billion people use drinking water that is unsafe and dangerous for their health, while 3.4 billion people use water of doubtful quality, at least from time to time.

More than 2.6 billion lack access to proper sanitation, more than 1.5 billion are living without access to adequate energy and more than 1 billion will go to bed hungry tonight.

We are already withdrawing more freshwater for human use than what is sustainably available -- and withdrawals continue to increase to grow more food with a higher share of more water-intensive proteins, to generate more energy and to supply a rapidly urbanizing global population.

Not surprisingly, water insecurity was listed as one of the top three global risks in the World Economic Forum 2014 Global Risk Report. This is mankind's most pressing challenge.

It will only be resolved by co-operative, pragmatic efforts and a single-minded focus by those in academia, civil society, government, NGOs and private enterprise to find effective, economical and sustainable solutions to preserve our water supply for generations to come.

Why does Nestlé care about water sustainability? Some say it is because of our bottled water business. That's incorrect. Bottled water is a small part of our business and the entire bottled water industry uses well less than a small fraction of 1% of the world's sustainably available freshwater.

Nestlé is the world's largest food company. Worldwide, 70% of all water withdrawn for human use goes to farms to grow food. We are more concerned about the ability of the farmers we contract with around the world to continue to grow food for us and ultimately, you, the consumer, to have access to truly safe water. My personal water blog www.Water-Challenge.com outlines some of the dimensions of the challenges ahead.

Water shortages could trigger shortfalls in food production. The risk here is of shortfalls of 30% in global cereal production by 2030 due to water shortages. From 2008 onwards, prices for staple foods have soared to three times the level in 2002 to 2004, a first warning of worse things to come.

It will primarily be food availability and prices that transform an increasing number of local water issues into a global crisis resulting in further and, possibly, significant increases in food prices, particularly staple foods. This is something that we at Nestlé believe should be avoided -- not because of our profit margin but because of the social and political turmoil from price increases and the possible shortfalls in basic food of 30% and its societal repercussions.

Increasingly, water is also the choke point for producing energy and, as a result, economic development. You can see this risk in China and other emerging economies with rapidly growing amounts of freshwater needed for thermal power generation, hence the focus of World Water Day this year on water and energy. Once several fast-growing economies run into these kinds of difficulties, it will have serious repercussions for the world economy.

Is water a priceless resource? Yes, it still is in most places. And when there isn't an adequate price attached to water, when it is free or distributed at heavily distorted prices, we see its value massively reduced, ultimately at a high cost for society and the environment.

There is one exception to this pricing: water as a human right - water that is safe, accessible, acceptable, affordable and can be obtained without discrimination. Here again, government control and responsibility are at the forefront. I think that for the minimum basic need for drinking, cooking and basic hygiene it should be free for those who cannot afford it. A showcase for me is the South African government's 2001 Free Basic Water policy as part of its integrated rural development strategy and urban renewal program. It allows for every household to get 6,000 litres of water per month at no cost, if unable to pay. This is calculated at 25 litres per person per day for a family of eight.

For all other uses, water should at least cover the infrastructure cost and possibly have an additional value agreed or negotiated among the main users. Subsidized or free water threatens water security, the environment and, ultimately, long-term food security. Agriculture, where we are experiencing the most pressing challenges, is also the sector with the greatest opportunity for significant, sustainable solutions. To illustrate, the water withdrawn for agricultural use today is almost 2.5 times the physiological need of the plants. Given that fact, few would argue that major change isn't required.

Science, complemented by new technologies, can make the greatest contribution towards improved water efficiency. Some examples include computerized irrigation, water metering, reverse osmosis and nanotechnology.

Before they celebrate the next World Water Day, there are a few initiatives individual Canadians should focus on to help preserve, protect and strengthen their water systems, including calling on government to make water and sewer infrastructure development and maintenance a priority, as well as make all residential, commercial and industrial water takers pay their fair share of the real cost of water consumption.

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe is Chairman of Nestlé S.A.

SOURCE Nestlé Waters Canada