Access to clean, safe water is fundamental to life. It is essential to health and well-being, but also food, energy, prosperity and economic growth. Yet the impacts of climate change threaten to make water scarcity an even more pressing issue for even more people. Successfully safeguarding this precious resource requires true partnership between organizations, both public and private.
Already, momentum is building at the global level to better manage water resources. Ensuring everyone, everywhere has access to water is a key part of the recent Sustainable Development Goals. At the national level, recent droughts from South Africa and California to Sao Paulo have hit local populations, as well as businesses and economic growth. It’s impossible to ignore extreme weather and increased competition for water — and we can expect it to worsen as the impacts of climate change increase.
Experts we partner with tell us there are two main reasons people experience low water security. Sometimes, there is simply not enough to meet demand. Around 1.2 billion people, almost one-fifth of the world’s population, live in areas of physical scarcity, and 500 million more are approaching water scarcity. This means everyone should look to reduce any unnecessary waste or loss of water, and save water wherever possible.
But there is another type of water scarcity — one where water is available but people are unable to access the quantity and quality they need. This is where we can make a real and more immediate difference. Another 1.6 billion people face this type of economic scarcity, which has multiple and complex causes, from historical inequities and poor infrastructure to bureaucratic hurdles.
The search for sustainable solutions to challenges like these brought us to work with a number of partners on both local and global water projects.
We know water scarcity is an issue that requires long-term vision and commitment. Our partnership over the past 17 years with the Unilever Center for Environmental Water Quality at Rhodes University in South Africa works to empower communities to have a say in how local water resources are managed and governed. This is critical when there are so many competing claims for water from industrial, agricultural and domestic users.
But we also need to provide immediate, practical solutions. As many households continue to suffer unreliable and interrupted water supply in South Africa, UCEWQ and partners have set up an emergency water program called Water for Dignity. Hundreds of homes are able to access safe water stored and made available through simple solutions like street water tanks. They are also supporting community-based businesses where volunteers provide household water barrels against staged payments — a model that will soon be self-sustaining.
These types of programs need to be scaled up if we want to meet the SDG of ensuring safe water for all by 2030. Today, we have just announced a new partnership with UNICEF to improve access to safe water in countries across sub-Saharan Africa. Starting in Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast, the programs will promote handwashing in schools and improve water management. The aim is to provide access to safe water and drive behavior change in how people use and conserve water, in a way that is sustainable and scalable across the continent.
Our motivation for partnering with Rhodes University and UNICEF is as much a question of survival as it is of social responsibility. We know our business can’t succeed without water. We need water to grow our agricultural materials, keep our factories running and even for customers to use our products when they cook, clean and wash. We’re working hard to use water more efficiently within our own supply chain and to innovate products that help our consumers use less water. Since 1995, we’ve cut the water abstracted by our factories per unit of production by 74 percent. But there’s still much more for us to do — within our operations and with others.
The stakes could not be higher. As World Bank President Jim Yong Kim recently noted: “Achieving the water global goal would have multiple benefits, including laying the foundations for food and energy security, sustainable urbanization, and ultimately climate security.”
This year’s U.N.-Water theme, “Water and Jobs,” is a stark reminder of how many people depend on water for their livelihood and employment.
Communities, businesses and governments all have an interest in ensuring that we manage this scarce resource sustainability and equitably. It is critical for those who lack access to water today, but it is also essential if we want our communities and economy to thrive in the future.