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Investment in water can’t run dry forever

As I stare out of my office window (and defer writing this article for the third time this morning) the sun is streaming in through the slits in the blind. It makes a pleasant change from the relentless rain of the past month that has left the grass saturated and the lids of the heaving water butts appear like they are levitating.

It’s a striking change in outlook from the summer of 2022 when the prolonged heatwave left my vegetables wilting and the lawn looking parched and lifeless. Reluctantly, I respected the hosepipe ban, left the runner beans to their fate and saved as much water as possible both in the garden and the home. Come the autumn I invested in an extra water butt to make me feel like I was proactively addressing the problem of water scarcity, but deep down I realised it would offer scant security when we are next faced with a 40°C summer – as we surely will be soon.

The average business response tends to be not dissimilar to my own. In times of scarcity, as with last summer, efficiency measures come to the fore as sites take steps to ensure water continues to be available for their own use; turning off taps, ensuring dishwasher loads are full, stopping the flow of water to urinals when they are not in use – you know the drill. Once times of plenty return, water tends to fall back towards the bottom of the ESG to-do list.

Some businesses do go that step beyond. Greene King last year partnered with Bury St Edmunds Town Council in a project to harvest rainwater from buildings in the town.

At The Glenlivet distillery in Speyside, a series of small dams has been created in the landscape surrounding the distillery to capture water and prevent its closure during dry periods.

These are worthy endeavours and attractive to businesses since they are actions that are well within their direct control. Yet the greatest long-term risk associated with water insecurity comes from further afield. A recent report from WWF found that freshwater ecosystems around the world are increasingly under threat from unsustainable extraction for agriculture and other human interventions. Half of the world’s population is currently exposed to water scarcity at least once per month, while 55 million people are affected by droughts annually.

Our appetite for water however – the majority of which is embedded in the products we consume – is growing ever greater. By 2030, global demand for water is expected to double according to the FAO, while the UN predicts a 40% water shortfall.

Constant risk

In the UK, water stress may be out of mind for most of us, most of the time, but our exposure to the direct risk experienced by farmers overseas is a constant. The UK imports more than 80% of its fruit and 40% of its vegetables, predominantly from water-stressed countries such as Spain and Morocco. As such, water security is a material risk to the UK’s ability to feed its population.

For many businesses involved in the sale of food and drink the penny has apparently not yet dropped. In a recently published progress report for its water roadmap – a key strand of the Courtauld Commitment 2030 – Wrap revealed that just 60 businesses, including a mere six from the hospitality and foodservice sector, have committed to measure water risk in their operations and supply chains, identify hot spots, set water-related targets and report on progress, as is required of roadmap signatories.

Engagement on the issue is pitifully poor when compared with waste and carbon. Wrap details a number of reasons for this inertia including a lack of boardroom buy-in; long, opaque supply chains; and an absence of tangible commercial benefit from action on water risk.

This continued deprioritising of water as a sustainability issue is folly. As Wrap senior water specialist Rowen West-Henzell told me: “Without water, you have no food”. When the risks do reveal themselves they will do so suddenly and severely, through a lack of availability of fresh produce and soaring prices.

Those businesses that have already mapped their water risk hotspots will be ahead of the game when it comes to finding alternative sources of supply. The rest will have to deal with the fallout that comes when shelves are empty or menus have to be stripped back.

UK citizens tend to be fairly stoic in the face of hosepipe bans and local water shortages; they tend to be less forgiving of businesses who fail to offer the level of choice and service they have come to expect.

*A version of this blog was first published by Footprint.

** Image courtesy of Pixaby

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