The following article arrived in my inbox this morning. We all know water is becoming an increasingly important issue. In some places it’s already more expensive than wine. I referenced it in another blog recently.

Rising populations, improving lifestyles and changes to the global climate are all increasing the pressure on the planet’s water resources, says conservation expert Brian Richter. In this week’s Green Room, he explains why there is an urgent need for the world to embrace new ways in which it uses water.

   While most governments have proven themselves incapable or unwilling to manage water sustainably, a group of non-governmental and professional water organisations is stepping up to lead the way

More than one billion people lack access to safe, clean drinking water and more than half of the hospital beds in the world are occupied by people afflicted with water-borne diseases.

More than 800 million are malnourished, primarily because there isn’t enough water to grow their food.

Fish and other freshwater species are among the most imperiled on the planet, in large part because of the ways that we have polluted and exploited their habitats.

The theme of this year’s World Water Week, currently underway in Stockholm, is therefore quite fitting: Responding to Global Changes: Accessing Water for the Common Good.

What global changes, you might ask? Let us start with our global population, expected to rise from nearly seven billion to nine billion in just a few decades. That is why more than half the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030.

At the same time, in populous nations such as China and India, improvements in living standards and personal incomes are linked to greater consumption of clothing, meat, and water.

It takes 140 litres of water to produce one cup of coffee; 3,000 litres to make a hamburger; and 8,000 litres to create a pair of leather shoes. All of these processes require a vast amount of water to grow crops, feed cows, or produce leather.

On top of that, climate change will bring less rain to many regions, and cause it to evaporate more quickly almost everywhere.

Accordingly, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that “the proportion of the planet in extreme drought at any time will likely increase”.

These are the nightmares that keep me awake at night.

Just the tonic

These global forecasts wouldn’t look so daunting if we were doing a great job of managing water today. But over-extraction of water for farms and cities is already causing even large rivers such as the Yellow, the Ganges and the Rio Grande to repeatedly run completely dry.

   More than 80% of cities do not treat their waste water, a study suggests 

Wastewater fears for urban farms

Remarkably, we also continue to foul our preciously scarce water supplies with too much human waste. More than 200 million tonnes of it each year go directly into our rivers and lakes without treatment.

So yes, the challenges we face are vast, but there’s something brewing in Stockholm that is helping me sleep a little better.

While most governments have proven themselves incapable or unwilling to manage water sustainably, a group of non-governmental and professional water organisations is stepping up to lead the way.

You may have heard of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) that certifies sustainably-harvested wood products, or the Fair Trade movement for consumer products, yet no such scheme yet exists for water.

At World Water Week, a group of leading business, social development and conservation organisations will gather as the “Alliance for Water Stewardship” to advance a new voluntary global water certification program that will recognize and reward responsible corporations, farming operations, cities, and other water users for their sustainable use of water resources.

By developing best practice standards for managing water in a way that enables economic development in an environmentally friendly and socially responsible manner, the Alliance aims to certify “water users” who are taking major steps to minimise their water footprint and protect healthy watersheds.

Participants, otherwise known as “water users”, can range from large international companies to local water utilities to agricultural industries.

The Alliance will bring together the largest water players from around the world in Stockholm to launch a “global water roundtable”, a two-year dialogue among global water interests to seek agreement about the problems created by unsustainable water use, and to build consensus around the best-practice standards that will underpin the certification programme.

 Changes in rainfall patterns could affect our ability to grow food

It is a huge undertaking, but the water crisis is urgent, and we desperately need a new, transparent rulebook for managing our water resources more sustainably.

So why would a large company or city to want to play by these new rules? A rapidly growing number of consumers are buying goods from companies with environmental and social credentials, giving certified products ranging from produce to beverages to clothing a competitive edge in the marketplace.

In this increasingly water-scarce world, companies are also becoming painfully aware of their vulnerabilities to water shortages, not just in their own business operations but throughout their supply chains. If barley farmers in northern China run out of water, breweries and beer drinkers throughout Asia will feel the pain.

Many companies are realising that if they can save water in their manufacturing or growing processes, they can save a lot of money, making them more profitable.

Similarly, cities save costs for water treatment when the watersheds that supply their residents are maintained in a healthy condition.

Interestingly, investors are increasingly screening loan requests from cities and companies on the basis of their sustainability scores, because behaving in an environmentally and socially responsible manner translates into reduced investment risk.

Perhaps most importantly, though, is the simple fact that we have no other choice but to move toward a new paradigm for water.

The maths simply do not add up any other way. We have only the same amount of water on this planet now as when life began. We cannot support seven billion, let alone nine billion, if we continue to waste and foul such a substantial portion of what we have.

Certification isn’t likely to solve all the world’s water problems, but it very well could set us onto a sustainability trajectory that could give my nightmare a happy ending.

Brian Richter is director of the Global Freshwater Program at The Nature Conservancy, a US non-governmental organisation

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website.

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John Haines is the author of In Search of Simplicity: A True Story that Changes Lives, a startlingly poignant and inspiring real-life endorsement of the power of thought, belief and synchronicity in one’s life. 

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