Big business discovers water shortages: time to turn off the tap

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The world is heading for a water crisis, that much is clear. Water is becoming ever scarcer yet at the same time we are using more and more of it. Now, even the multinationals have woken up to this fact and are holding talks with water watchdogs. Want to wash your hair sustainably? Turn off the tap!

International Water Week in Amsterdam is an ideal meeting place for all kinds of organisations that have something to do with water. There you will see multinationals like Unilever and Shell pulling up a chair to talk to international engineering firms and other water monitors to discuss how to make the most efficient use of available sources of water.

Role model
This is the first time that such discussions are taking place. And it’s about time, says Piet Dircke of Arcadis, an engineering firm in the world of water management.

“It’s a very good time to start. Governments have had to tighten their belts and have little scope for taking ambitious action, while the world’s water problems are increasing dramatically. Under these circumstances, it makes sense to present this challenge to industry: encourage them to take up the gauntlet, show leadership and demonstrate how the corporate sector can be a role model in working with us to tackle the water problems.”

Water issues are not a top priority for many governments and companies, Piet Dircke observes. They have plenty of other problems on their plate. “But the sense of urgency is beginning to take root.”

Unilever says it keeps a close watch on the water used during the total life cycle of its products. Research manager Hans Dröge explains “In its food production, Unilever uses a great deal of water to wash fruit and raw materials. So in our factories we try to capture as much water as possible so that we can purify and recycle it. But we also produce washing powder and shampoo. And with these products it’s mainly the consumer who uses a lot of water.”

This in turn means that there are gains to be made by encouraging consumers to change their behaviour. Mr Dröge continues “Your average American spends between ten and twelve minutes in the shower. That’s why we’ve launched a ‘turn off the tap’ shampoo campaign in the United States, asking people to turn off the shower when they are shampooing their hair. It’s been a great success.”

Arcadis believes that the greatest gains can be made in recycling water, especially now that the necessary technology is readily available. Piet Dircke says “In agriculture, for example, you can use the most highly purified water first for the most vulnerable crops. After drainage and purification, you can then re-use the water for less vulnerable crops, and so on.”

Drip irrigation
Unilever manager Hans Dröge also has examples of water-saving innovation:

“When it comes to agriculture, I think we are heading towards drip irrigation or low-pressure irrigation or water reservoirs: these options could end up being very influential. Drip irrigation involves using tubes to take the water directly to the roots of the plant. A pilot project in India succeeded in reducing water consumption by 70 percent.”

A matter of survival
Looking to the future, mega-cities are set to multiply, bringing with them the problems associated with drinking-water supplies and water purification. In such a world, sustainable water use cannot remain the stuff of intellectual chit-chat. Hans Dröge of Unilever sees it as nothing less than a survival strategy for the corporate world:

“I believe that, in around 20 years’ time, every company still in business will have very clear sustainability and water management objectives. They will take these issues very seriously indeed. By then, I expect the world will be convinced that you can’t have a lasting business without improving your water and energy policy.”