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Water: A human and business priority

McKinsey 05 May 2020 12:00

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Water is the lifeblood of humanity. With it, communities thrive. But, when the supply and demand of fresh water are misaligned, the delicate environmental, social, and financial ecosystems on which we all rely are at risk. Climate change, demographic shifts, and explosive economic growth all exacerbate existing water issues.

However, hope is not lost. Businesses can play a leading role in mitigating the water issue to limit not just their own risk but also the risk of all stakeholders relying on these systems. This can be accomplished by directing action through three spheres of influence: direct operations, supply chain, and wider basin health.

Water today

Water is as important to the world’s economy as oil or data. Though most of the planet is covered in water, more than 97 percent of it is salt water. Fresh water accounts for the rest, although most of it is frozen in glaciers, leaving less than 1 percent of the world’s water available to support human and ecological processes. Every year, we withdraw 4.3 trillion cubic meters of fresh water from the planet’s water basins. We use it in agriculture (which accounts for 70 percent of the withdrawals), industry (19 percent), and households (11 percent).

All industries rely on water in some way. A company’s water footprint can be seen in four key areas of its value chain: raw materials, suppliers, direct operations, and product use. Consider, for example, a T-shirt across its value chain—raw materials (cotton), suppliers (cotton-to-fabric processer), direct operations (final manufacturing, shipping, and retail), and product use (washing the shirt at home). Food and beverage companies use water as an ingredient in the products they sell, of course, but they also use it to irrigate, rinse, and clean crops, and to feed livestock. Metals and mining companies need water for dust control, drilling, and slurry when transporting products. In the tech industry, suppliers require ultrapure water for certain manufacturing processes, and data centers require water for cooling. Forest-products companies rely on water for making pulp and paper. Apparel companies rely on water to grow raw materials and wash garments. Even insurance companies are affected by water through claims related to water, such as crop-production insurance. Water’s uses and effects are as varied as business itself.

This event, and others like it, are just a taste of what’s to come. As McKinsey’s 2009 report Charting our water future: Economic frameworks to inform decision-making made clear, climate change, population growth, and changing consumer habits are increasing water stress for many regions. The recent McKinsey Global Institute report Climate risk and response: Physical hazards and socioeconomic impacts notes that many of the world’s basins could see a supply decline of around 10 percent by 2030 and up to 25 percent by 2050. By 2050, according to UN estimates, one in four people may live in a country affected by chronic shortages of fresh water. The World Bank estimates that the crisis could slow GDP by 6 percent in some countries by 2050 as well.

Physical risks can be critical and costly. In some locations, key water sources may be inaccessible or unfit for use. A primary physical risk is having too little water, which can be a costly problem. A 2015 drought in Brazil drove up General Motors’ water costs there by $2.1 million, and its electricity costs rose an additional $5.9 million.

In 2010, Ford set a goal of using 30 percent less water per car by 2014. It reached that goal through a combination of new KPIs and operational improvements. The introduction of internal water metering alone drove conservation behaviors to the department level and helped save around $5 million worldwide. A dry-paint-spray system eliminated water from the car-painting process, and a new lubricant that replaced water in the manufacturing process saved about 280,000 gallons per production line.

Companies can also set reporting standards for suppliers. In 2014, Levi Strauss launched a Recycle & Reuse compliance program, which requires that each supplier meet certain limits; use a blend of at least 20 percent recycled water in its facility processing, landscaping, cooling, and plumbing; and provide flow-meter data that tracks the amount of recycled water used on Levi Strauss products.

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