On World Water Day: Collaboration is the only way to tackle the urgent crisis of water scarcity

8 October 2020

I can’t think of many locations in film which are quite as evocative as the sweeping landscapes of Lawrence of Arabia. They were partly filmed in Morocco, a country I am excited to finally discover this week. As always, though, the romantic in me has been tempered by my scientist alter-ego. Because I am learning that behind all the exotic charms of this beautiful country, there lies a more bleak reality.

Morocco might be rich in tapestry and colour, but it is scarily poor in one precious commodity: water.

The country faces a constant battle against water scarcity, with dwindling groundwater reserves, and an over-reliance on rainwater. Many rural communities rely on a single water source to sustain families and livelihoods. Only a fraction of the total land for agriculture is irrigated, leaving the country prey to the ravages of catastrophic droughts, as experienced just two years ago. Poor sanitation and waste treatment means the scant resources are at constant risk of contamination.

The Moroccan government is seen as more progressive than some in this part of the world – a recent project with the US Government, for example, has seen some encouraging work exploring new technologies which are less water reliant. There are also other projects to strengthen existing infrastructure, such as the Agdez dam, water treatment plans and well building.

But like many other parts of the world, the risks of lack of water are rippling through societies – with all the attendant risk of disease, poverty, urban migration and social unrest. 2017 saw protests from Moroccans increasingly worried about the threat of water scarcity to their health and livelihoods.

So, it feels appropriate, on World Water Day, to be in one of the regions which is fighting a constant battle to provide its people with arguably the most essential force of life the planet has to offer.

Around the world, governments, working with the NGO sector, are doing amazing work in ensuring vulnerable populations get access to safe water. But, it’s an inescapable fact that the business world also has to play its part and take responsibility. Here in Morocco, for example, I have learnt that the watermelon growing industry is reportedly contributing to water stress in parts of the country.

Any business that depends on water, directly, or indirectly, needs to be aware of, and mitigate against the risks to, and impact of, their supply chains and operations.

Consider this: the World Economic Forum highlights water as one of the top five risks facing the global economy; and some estimates suggest that demand for water will exceed viable resources by 40% by 2030 if we carry on as we are. Agriculture accounts for 70% of total freshwater use globally, according to the World Bank, and the The Boston Consulting Group estimated that the fashion industry uses around 79 billion cubic metres of water every year, and this is set to double by 2030.

In the UK, businesses face increasing risks related to both flooding and water scarcity – the Environment Agency has shown that water resources are already under pressure in England, with reliable supplies unavailable for new business needs across much of the country. And further alarm bells were sounded just this week with the EA head, Sir James Bevan, warning that within 25 years England is facing an “existential threat” and will not have enough water to meet demand.

Add to this the potential reputational damage for being seen to be responsible for, or associated, with risks to public health from industrial water pollution, or the impact on the environment from over abstraction, and it is clear that there is an economic and social imperative for businesses to be part of the solution and not the problem.

At WRAP, we believe that this means going beyond local site level water management to what is being termed as ‘water stewardship’ – committing to sustainable management of shared water resources by working across their supply chains and with other businesses, communities, governments and NGOs - for the benefit for all. Individual companies can do so much but as water, by its very nature, flows – through villages, countries, even regions - it means their impact is always going to be limited.

This collaborative, sector, approach is what lies at the heart of the Courtauld 2025 Water Ambition, we launched last year with our partners in WWF and the Rivers Trust.

Many will associate Courtauld with its world leading work on reducing food waste, but, importantly, signatories have also committed to reducing the impacts of water use in the supply chain. Which is why we were delighted to launch this exciting collaboration.

Signatories, who include major players from across the food and drink industry, have committed to monitoring and improving water efficiency across their own operations, but also to participate in collective action to improve the quality and availability in key sourcing areas.

This is both in the UK, and abroad. For example, in East Anglia, one of the most water-stressed areas of the UK, Coca-Cola has been undertaking pioneering work with WWF and the Rivers Trust to promote sustainable water sensitive farming practices to improve the resilience of their businesses, whilst improving the health of the local rivers which include internationally important chalk streams.

This work is being extended across the catchment to help `join up the dots` and reach a critical mass of producers in the area, with widespread support from retailers Asda, Co-op, M&S, Sainsbury’s and Tesco.

Across the other side of the country, in Cumbria, Nestlé are working with their dairy farmers and local partners to implement interventions to enhance water and soil quality as well as habitat, animal health and productivity.

And further afield in Kenya, which for example provides the UK with over a quarter of our imported beans, Courtauld signatories are working to extend the established water stewardship project in the Naivasha basin to other parts of the country. And by coincidence Morocco is also a country identified by Courtauld 2025 as somewhere we could work one day in the future.

Over the lifetime of Courtauld 2025, these projects aim to cover around half of the production area of fresh produce supply from water stressed locations, as well as key water stressed areas for arables and livestock. Each project will aim to deliver reductions in water stress, measured against the most important water stress impacts & metrics in that location and we hope that the lessons learnt from these projects can then be scaled up across other key sourcing areas.

I love this kind of collaboration at work, on our own shores and across the world. It demonstrates the growing interconnectedness of the world we all inhabit.

The Water Ambition has generated real excitement in the industry, with many recognising that the only way to tackle the huge problems associated with water sustainably, and at scale, is, as Andrew Griffiths, Head of Value Chain Sustainability, at Nestlé UK&I, said “through genuine pre-competitive collaboration”. We’ll be reporting on progress later in the year.

Water stewardship is, we believe, the way forward in rising to the monumental challenges associated with water. It’s a problem we simply cannot wash our hands of. To governments, and businesses around the world, I cannot resist quoting from another famous film set in Morocco – “here’s looking at you….”