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21st Century paradigm for water management: Business, social, and political implications

By Will Sarni - January 17, 2012

I believe increasing water scarcity is on a collision course with economic development, energy and food needs.

Without adequate water supplies, the world will not be able to feed an ever increasing population, manufacture products or generate electricity (hydro, nuclear and fossil fuels). Unlike energy, water is unique; there is no alternative.

Increasing global population, urbanization, energy and food demands coupled with declining water quality in certain regions has resulted in increased competition for water in the public and private sectors. The facts and trends highlight this increasing “scarcity” of water are as follows (Water Scarcity. The Water-Food-Energy-Climate Nexus. World Economic Forum 2011):

  • Currently, about 884 million people worldwide don’t have regular access to safe drinking water and about 2.5 billion people lack access to sanitation. This has significant economic, social and political implications (www.water.org).
  • Water withdrawals are expected to increase by about 50 percent by 2025 in developing countries and 18 percent in developed countries (www.water.org). As a result, projections indicate that about 47 percent of the global population will face water shortages by 2030 (www.oecd.org)
  • Increased competition for water is driven by (Water Scarcity. The Water-Food-Energy-Climate Nexus. World Economic Forum 2011):
  • Population growth and changing diets: Driven largely by the developing world, global population is expected to hit 8 billion in the next 20 years. As people become more prosperous, they demand more quantities and different types of food – specifically meat (demand is expected to increase 50 percent by 2025). To meet the growing demand, farmers will likely need to increase production by 70-100 percent.
  • Water is a strategic resource for most global businesses: It has a crucial role in a wide range of industries, products, and processes—from agriculture to pharmaceutical manufacturing, from mineral extraction to semiconductor manufacturing. Water is likely to be a requisite resource used in every aspect of a company’s value chain, from sourcing and manufacturing to distribution and end use or consumption and, as a result, is “embedded” in every product.
  • Urbanization: According to the UN, in 2050 China’s cities will house 73 percent of its population (up from 46 percent today) and India will house 55 percent (up from 30 percent today) in cities.[ These growing, increasingly prosperous populations will demand more food, energy, and water.
  • Increased demand for energy: According to IEA, the world economy will demand at least 40 percent more energy in 2030 and 77 percent of that requisite energy infrastructure has yet to be built. Demand for water for energy and industrial use is expected to rise sharply from 2000-2030 where regional economies are growing fastest (increases of: 56 percent in Latin America, 63 percent in West Asia, 65 percent in Africa, 78 percent in Asia).

As global leaders from DTTL and Deloitte member firms along with private sector companies, the public sector, and NGO’s meet in Davos at the end of this month for the 2012 World Economic Forum, they will be confronted with this challenge: how to ensure that the world will have enough water, energy and food to accommodate increasing economic development?

I believe a radical rethinking of how the world manages water resources is needed to ensure sustainable water, energy and food supplies, and economic growth. I propose that a 21st century paradigm for water management is essential. 

This 21st century paradigm will require:

  • changes in public policy to reflect the true cost of water;
  • integrated resource management programs across political boundaries;
  • public and private sector collaboration; and
  • new business strategies (including new technologies and services) to address demands for resources and improved risk management tools and an increased focus on resource efficiency.

With this new paradigm comes an opportunity for the development of new products and services for global businesses.  Increasing competition for water is already driving innovation in areas such as improved water data acquisition and analytics, precision agriculture, improved water efficiency, addressing water losses from pipeline leakage, energy efficient water treatment technologies, and a move to extract energy and nutrients from wastewater.

This could be the greatest resource challenge the world confronts in this century. We need to adopt a new way of looking at water and we need to do it now.

Learn more on this issue in the video below or view and download the Deloitte LLP article "Water stewardship: A matter of business value and risk."


Will SarniWill Sarni is Director and Practice Leader of Enterprise Water Strategy, Sustainability and Climate Change, Deloitte Consulting LLP in the United States. He has provided sustainability and environmental consulting services to private- and public-sector enterprises for more than three decades, with a focus on developing and implementing corporate-wide sustainability strategies, as well as broad based climate and water programs. His approach fuses the practical with the creative in developing and implementing high-value sustainability programs and integrating diverse business and technical issues related to resource management.

He is the author of Greening Brownfields: Remediation Through Sustainable Development (McGraw Hill), Corporate Water Strategies (Earthscan), and the forthcoming book, Water Tech – A Guide to Innovation and Business Opportunities (Earthscan 2012).


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"Unlike energy, water is unique; there is no alternative." - Most definitely. Without energy, we just go back to the stone age. Without water, we all die.

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