This World Water Day (March 22 2019) is all about tackling the water crisis by addressing the reasons why so many people are still lacking access to safe and adequate water. This will contribute to the conversation around the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6: Water for all by 2030.
Water, we all know, is the foundation block of life. It covers more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, but the water we use for drinking and bathing is incredibly rare. Only 3% of the world’s water is freshwater and two-thirds of this is frozen in glaciers or otherwise unavailable to use. The remaining 1% has to meet the needs of all living beings on earth and more than 7 billion humans, who use it to grow food, generate energy, drive industry and manufacturing as well as to simply drink.
So, it is no surprise that we are facing a multitude of threats to global water security. But the problems surrounding water are incredibly complex, having multiple causes and consequences; and this series of articles will only go a short way to illuminate this troubling reality.
Over the past year alone we have seen a plethora of issues involving water all around the world. Climate change induced water shortages in Cape Town. The depletion of rural water sources is leading farmers in Pakistan and elsewhere, to abandon their land and migrate to already crowded cities. Record-setting wildfires destroyed vast swathes of California and Portugal after a series of increasingly drier summers.
All this adds weight to the UN climate panel’s warnings that the planet’s ecosystems are changing more quickly than predicted: 2019 began with the collapse of a mining dam that was holding toxic waste in Brumadinho, Brazil, killing 186 people and another 120 missing; this sent toxic waste more than 300 km downstream polluting the water supply of millions of people.
The right to safe and clean drinking water
The threats to water security can be broken down into two categories; quantity and quality.
The impact of water quantity covers a broad spectrum from having too much water in the case of flooding, or not enough resulting in severe drought. Then there is the over extraction of water by industry, agriculture and cities, and the consequences for ecosystems, the climate and the future of society.
In 2010, the UN recognized “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” This entitles everyone, without discrimination, to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use; which includes water for drinking, cleaning, washing of clothes and food preparation.
However, as you read this, roughly two thirds of the world’s human population experience water scarcity for at least one month per year which means that there is less than 83,000 litres of freshwater available per person for that month. With the world’s population set to grow beyond 10 billion by 2050, this is only going to exacerbate. Projections show that by 2035, 3.6 billion people will be living in areas with water scarcity; and in the most severe case, Kuwait, there will be only an estimated 383 litres per person per month.
The leading use of freshwater is agriculture, accounting for 70% of all use globally. This is mostly used for the irrigation of crops. This huge use of water is becoming strained in drier regions of the world where development is shifting the demand for water away from agriculture to supply people and industry. However, as the population increases, and the developing world increases its wealth and desire for more animal-based foods, it is estimated that agriculture will need to expand by an additional 70% by 2050.
Unsafe water kills
Much of the water footprint of a product doesn’t come from the use or consumption of it but in the way it has been produced. Either through the irrigation of the crops, or with the feedstock and water requirements of livestock. Much of this water use is hidden within the supply chain of the products and is often completely unknown to the consumer. For example one cup of coffee uses roughly 135 litres which comes mostly in the form of rainwater; a kilogram of beef requires over 15,000 litres and the same weight in vegetables requires around 300 litres. Food and other consumer products are where much of our water footprint lies and is something we must all become more conscious of.
Climate change is also having an impact on water by shifting how it moves around the Globe. Global warming is increasing the capacity for air to store more moisture which, in turn, has increased evaporation from soils and water bodies, causing them to dry out more quickly.
We are already witnessing more extreme weather events. Houston alone was hit by three 1-in-500 year storms in three consecutive years. One of these, Hurricane Harvey, hit in 2017 and caused $125 billion in damage. The severe flooding that resulted flushed millions of litres of polluted water into the river system
The second category is quality, which involves contaminants in the water, how this is dealt with and where it has come from. This includes the run-off of agricultural pesticides and fertilisers into waterways and the oceans, the toxic waste water from factories and the lack of safe drinking water.
Some 80% of the world’s wastewater is dumped, largely untreated, back into the environment, polluting rivers, lakes, oceans and people’s supply of drinking water. It is for this reason that the majority of the targets set by Sustainable Development Goal 6 are related to sanitation and combating water pollution.
All is not lost
Despite the major advances in medical sciences and engineering technology, inadequate sanitation is still a problem for 2.1 billion people. Around 80% of people using unsafe water sources live in rural areas. They are exposed to diseases, such as cholera and typhoid fever, and other water-borne illnesses; resulting in two million people, mostly children, dying each year from diarrheal diseases alone. Unsafe water kills more people each year than war and all other forms of violence combined.
Humans are also having a huge impact on water through plastic pollution, which can now be found on every single beach in the world. Every day, approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans and recent studies have revealed marine plastic pollution in 100% of marine turtles, 59% of whales, 36% of seals and 40% of seabird species examined. Leading to more than one million animals dying annually. Even ending up within the human food chain. Read more on this, here.
All is not lost as there are ways of overcoming these issues and there are many groups working to stop the worst of the water crisis. The overarching term for much of these measures is ‘replenishment’.
More and more stories are emerging from around the world about people replenishing water bodies, rivers and landscapes through simple, cost effective and replicable techniques. A significant element of this has come from the principles of permaculture, P.A Yeomans and agroecology. Basically, this involves increasing ground cover and soil organic content, whilst understanding the contours and natural flows of the land. This is benefiting farmers and watersheds from the drylands of Portugal with Tamera, the residents of Rajasthan through Rajendra Singh, to Bahia Brazil where Epicentro Mariza is replenishing the super diverse aridland.
But what can we do as consumers?
One key action is to substitute a product that has a large water footprint with a different one that has a smaller footprint, such as consuming no animal products, drinking tea instead of coffee, avoiding single-use plastic or wearing organic cotton. A second option, which might be more convenient, is to stick to the same consumption patterns but make better informed choices for products with a relatively low water footprint or ones that haven’t been produced in areas of high water scarcity. But this requires consumers to have proper information to make these choices.
Check your water footprint
Some of this information can be found through organisations such as the Water Footprint Network or the Water Footprint Calculator; which have resources on the various products and how much water it takes to produce them. Websites such as the Circle of Blue and the World Resources Institute give invaluable insight into the global issues and where they are happening. However, without accurate information from manufacturers it is very difficult to feel empowered to make changes. It is essential that consumers demand more product transparency from businesses and stronger regulation from governments.
As a cosmetic business it is written into the Lush business plan to promote the use of products requiring large amounts of water. Whilst the company hasn’t published any information yet on how much water is needed to produce its products; we have been very active and vocal about reducing our impact on water; whether this is by removing plastic packaging or substituting synthetic preservatives with natural ones whilst removing water. We also strive for greater transparency in our supply chains so that we can make better decisions as to where our ingredients should come from.
Demonstrating our products is one of the core responsibilities of our shop staff; this usually means using water but different techniques have been developed to demonstrate without it; the Harajuku Bath-bomb shop in Japan was the world’s first store to not use any water on the shopfloor and instead uses the Lush Lens and self-learning artificial intelligence to show you how the bath bomb looks. Additionally, the Earth Care team has been working to reduce the water used in the manufacturing processes.
It is apparent that water is an increasingly threatened resource but the problems we face are multifaceted and complex; no person or group can solve these on their own. However by making better informed decisions so that we reduce our water consumption and pollution, we can prevent the situation from worsening.
Ben works with the Lush buying team to support the buyers to make our supply chain more regenerative. He is starting to focus specifically on water and how our ingredients have an impact on it so that we can make more informed decisions.