Water supplies are under pressure now and will be even more so in the future. That spells trouble for growers and the entire planet.
Emilio Tenuta, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer at St. Paul, Minn.,-based Ecolab, spoke Sept. 22 at The Packer’s virtual Sustainable Produce Summit on the importance of water management.
Ecolab helped its customers save 206 billion gallons of water in 2019, he said, which is equivalent to the drinking water needs of about 700 million people. “We’re on track toward our goal of 300 billion gallons (saved) by 2030.”
The need to save water is real, he said, noting the reality of climate change.
“California has been getting hotter and drier for years now,” he said.
Tenuta said temperatures in California’s San Fernando Valley have recently topped 120 degrees, and hot weather has resulted in a longer and more destructive fire season.
“This is not a coincidence, it is a consequence of climate change,” he said.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought its share of troubles, Tenuta said water and other resource issues demand attention.
“We’re going to have 10 billion people on this earth by 2050,” he said. “By 2030, we need 40% more water, 35% more food and 25% more energy.”
Scientists say it is critical to reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, Tenuta said, with net zero emissions by 2050.
With all of these concurrent pressures, he said it can be easy to downplay the fundamental importance of water. But water stress is an issue now in many countries.
“In all parts of the world, not just in low-income countries. our world’s freshwater resources are under stress,” he said. “Today, 2 billion people, more than a quarter of the world’s population, live in water stressed regions.”
The World Economic Forum places water as a top-five global risk, more significant than cyber attacks and man-made natural disasters.
“Given the trajectory of population growth, and economic growth, the world is facing a projected 56% water deficit by 2030,” Tenuta said. “If no action is taken, we will wreak havoc on the way we use and replenish water.”
Businesses will be hurt by water stress in ways we can’t imagine now, he said. By 2050, 45% of global Gross Domestic Product will be at risk due to water stress.
Ecolab helps companies manage water systematically, he said.
“Companies should build a water and climate resilience plan,” he said.
A plan to lower water use will also lower energy use and carbon dioxide emissions.
Ecolab was a founding member of the California Water Action Collaborative. The group brings together multiple non-profit organizations, agricultural producers, investors and global companies to address challenges to the state’s water supply.
The goal to improve local water management and stewardship by sharing best practices throughout the state.
“All this sounds very good and logical, but here is the challenge; most companies aren’t doing enough.”
A 2019 survey indicated that while many businesses have made pledges to reduce water usage, progress has been spotty.
“What we found is while there are many businesses that have made commitments to conserve water, the trend line is going the wrong way; 50% of companies reported they use more water today than they did in 2015,” he said.
Eighty percent of companies are aware of water-related risks, but he said only about half of them have a plan to manage these risks.
Ecolab has online tools that help monetize the risk of water insecurity. That tool can help rank businesses measure and monetize their water risks, he said.
“You can actually prioritize certain locations for action based on the highest risk,” he said.
That also helps companies put together an action plan for each produce facility based on what Ecolab calls a water return curve.
The collective challenge will be huge over the next 10 years, but it is possible.
“We can significantly improve our impact on the climate, and we can save money along the way,” he said.
“We’ll also be able to boost our reputation and improve our bottom line in the process. There’s no reason we shouldn’t do this.”
Correction: A previous version of the story had an incorrect number related to Ecolab-assisted water savings.