March 05, 2009
Global Water Resources Threatened by Climate Change and Population Growth
by Robert Kropp
Report finds that business is failing to address impact of water scarcity on its operations, and
provides investors with questions pertaining to water risks to ask of their portfolio companies.
It could be said that the global economy runs on water.
70% of the water used globally is
for agriculture, with as much as 90% in developing countries where most of the worldwide increase
in population of 50 million people per year is occurring. Electric power plants account for 39% of
all freshwater withdrawals in the United States. Water is an important resource for the high-tech
industry, especially for semiconductor manufacturing. Intel and Texas Instruments alone used more
than 11 billion gallons of ultra-pure water for cleaning and rinsing in the production of silicon
chips in 2007.
Yet according to a report issued by Ceres, a coalition of investors, environmental groups and other
public interest groups, and the Pacific
Institute, a nonprofit research organization, few businesses and investors are paying attention
to the financial threat presented by water scarcity problems around the world.
entitled Water Scarcity &
Climate Change: Growing Risks for Businesses and Investors, maintains that the impact of water
scarcity and declining water quality on business will be extensive, and that climate change is
likely to exacerbate already diminishing water supplies.
Mindy Lubber, President of Ceres,
said, "The report's conclusion is eye-opening. Climate change is exacerbating water scarcity
problems throughout the world, yet few businesses and investors are paying close enough attention
to assess the risk, integrate it into their assessments of companies, and act on it."
report finds that the global supply of water is rapidly becoming unsustainable. It is estimated
that by 2025 two-thirds of the world's population will live in regions that are already
water-stressed. The percentage of global land classified as very dry has doubled since the 1970s,
and natural water storage capacity and long-term annual river flows are also declining, especially
in the Northern Hemisphere.
Climate change is likely to cause a decrease in natural water
storage capacity from glacier and snowcap melting, increase water scarcity due to changes in
precipitation patterns, and increase the vulnerability of ecosystems.
Climate change will
also contribute to the already serious problem of declining water quality. At present, almost 900
million people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water, and those numbers are expected to rise
as climate change contributes to an increasing contamination of groundwater supplies and
environmental health risks associated with water.
Climate change is also considered to be
a significant factor in a number of water-related problems that have impacted business in the past
few years. According to the report, "China and India are seeing growth limited by reduced water
supplies from depleted groundwater and shrinking glaciers that sustain key rivers. California is
limiting agricultural water withdrawals due to drought. France, Germany and Spain were forced to
shut down dozens of nuclear plants due to a prolonged heat wave and low water levels."
Identifying water-related risks specific to eight key industries, including electric power,
high-tech, beverage, and agriculture, the report finds that disruptions in water supply can
undermine industrial and manufacturing operations where water is needed, contaminated water
supplies may require additional investment and operational costs for pre-treatment, and water
resource constraints make companies more susceptible to reputational risks.
the right to water is indispensable to the realization of many other internationally recognized
human rights, including the right to food, the right to health, and the right to adequate housing,
the report anticipates that water scarcity will lead to more stringent water policies from a
Yet despite its finding that a scarcity of clean, fresh water
presents increasing risks to companies in many countries and in many economic sectors, the report
concludes that business is failing to address the problem, and investors have not yet pursued steps
to better understand potential water-related exposure in their portfolio companies.
corporate disclosure on water risks and response strategies are especially glaring," according to
Lubber of Ceres.
Dr. Peter Gleick, President of Pacific Institute, said, "Only 20% of
corporations that we assessed look at real risks of water scarcity and contamination, and only 10%
describe supply chain risks. Almost none of the companies address the risks of climate change."
The report offers a number of suggestions for companies to consider in evaluating and
addressing water risks. Companies should measure water footprints throughout their supply chains,
assess risks associated with their water footprints, engage key stakeholders, integrate water
issues into strategic planning, and improve disclosure of water risks.
Anne Stausboll, CEO
of the California Public Employees Retirement
System (CALPERS), the nation's largest public pension fund with approximately $170 billion in
assets, said, "The report calls for improved corporate disclosure so that investors are better
equipped to evaluate companies' position relative to their peers on water-related risks and
In an excerpt from the report that Ceres and the
Pacific Institute considered to be enough importance to investors to publish as an independent
document as well, recommendations for questions that investors should ask of their portfolio
companies were explored.
The report recommends that investors ask the following questions:
Does the company measure and understand its water footprint? Has the company assessed the
business risks associated with its water footprint? Does the company engage with key stakeholders
as a part of its water risk assessment, management, and long-term planning? Has the company
integrated water risk into its overall business planning and governance structure? Does the company
disclose and communicate its water performance and associated risks?
"With impacts of
climate change on water resources already affecting businesses, this report provides a
first-of-its-kind list of key questions companies and investors should be asking – and responding
to – in an integrated way," said Jason Morrison, program director at the Pacific Institute and the
report's lead author.