Water choices have always been central to the development of nations. After its banks broke in the 11th century, the Po River abruptly changed course, diverting sediment-rich waters into to the lagoon of the Republic of Venice. Left to run its course, eventually sediment would have filled up the lagoon, grounding the city. Modern simulations show that, if that scenario had occurred, Venice today would have been a quaint village some five miles inland from the coast.
But the Venetians chose not to let that happen. At the turn of the Seventeenth Century, they finally embarked on a colossal hydraulic engineering project, cutting a vast canal to divert the Po out of the Lagoon and into a bay south of the city.
At completion, in 1604, the project had cost the Republic – one of the wealthiest trading states in the world – 300,000 Gold Ducati, roughly equivalent to ten percent of its annual budget. The canal redesigned the Italian coastline enough to be seen from space, a reminder that wrestling with nature at these scales is not a new phenomenon.
The story continues today. The South-to-North Water Diversion project under construction in China – a colossal transfer of water from the Yangtze River towards Beijing to supply parched Northern China – is expected to cost a similar amount, in today’s money, and is likely to have as profound an impact. The world is full of examples where developed and developing nations face critical issues of water security and consequential choices for their future.
This is not to say that megaprojects are the answer to the world’s water problems. However, not a day goes by without someone invoking an impending water crisis. The irony is that despite the enormity of the issues, the crisis is actually not about water. Water, for the most part, is not consumed in the way that, say, oil is. Its quantity on the planet, while finite, is not changing substantially, as it washes through the hydrologic cycle.
The crisis is really about us.
Our capacity to invest and manage water for the long term is inadequate. In theory, we know how to solve most water issues – a mix of infrastructure investments, ecosystems management, and hard decisions about what water is used for – yet countries seem to consistently struggle to mobilize sufficient capital, resources and political will to do so. We add diversions without managing demand for water. We construct the next levy without considering alternatives. We build one dam at a time, instead of planning for the whole basin. In the end, we find ourselves stuck with second or third best options, and in some cases no options at all. The quality of our environment and of people’s lives bears the brunt of these failures.
In this context, the business community has a critical role to play. It is not enough for business to concern itself only with what happens to water in its operations and supply chains. While a good step, that is not where the critical issues are.
The world will invest on the order of $80 billion to try to harness 300 gigawatts of hydropower from rivers across the world over the next two decades. How can we deliver on the promise of such an investment without jeopardizing the future viability for food production of the great rivers of the world? Land under irrigation will need to expand by some 20 percent to feed an additional two billion people. How can we do so without compromising the world’s aquifers and the quality of our surface waters?
It is on issues of this scale that the struggle to manage water resources of our planet plays out.
These are important, contextual choices that call into play values and require judgments about the kind of economy and environment we want to live in. Governments have a critical role to play as mediators of multiple public interests, but do not always have the resources and skills to fully articulate the implications of all choices available to us. Civil society organizations bring specific voices and science to the table but often lack the capabilities to engage on broader economic implications.
This year, the World Economic Forum asked business leaders which risks they fear most. “Global water supply crisis” ranked highest for both impact potential and likelihood.
It must therefore fall to businesses to ensure that world class economic and technical skills are brought to bear, so that infrastructural investments, economic planning, and the protection of ecosystems are integrated, and that water stewardship becomes a politically salient issue.
We may not always converge on the same answers, and at times may find ourselves on opposite sides of a debate, but the quality of our collective engagement will finally be commensurate to the consequences we will all face.
What role do you think businesses need to play in stewarding our water resource? Tell us in the comments section below.
[Image: The Jinsha River and Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan Province, China. Jinsha River is the westernmost of the major headwater streams of the Yangtze River, southwestern China. Image source: Scott Warren]