Fresh water is becoming scarce ©Seamind Panadda/EyeEm/Getty Images
Fresh water is becoming scarce ©Seamind Panadda/EyeEm/Getty Images

The heat is on

The threat of drought is increasing yet businesses are using more water

“The thick clouds did not rain.”

That simple, eloquent lament in The Cursing of Akkad, a poem written more than 4,000 years ago that scholars believe chronicles a drought in Mesopotamia, in Western Asia, reminds us that there is nothing new about climate change. In a region where, the “heart-soothing plants” that once grew on the plains gave way to “reeds of tears”, Mesopotamia’s civilisation collapsed.

At the time, the catastrophe was seen as divine retribution on King Naram-Sin who had rashly plundered the temple of a weather god. Yet recent studies of sediment cores in Iran blame an abrupt shift in climate conditions.

The Mesopotamians were unlucky – but not exceptionally so. In Central America, the abrupt collapse of the Maya civilisation during the ninth century AD correlated with a 41-54% reduction in annual rainfall, according to research by the University of Cambridge and the University of Florida. Fast-forward to modern times and, just in the past year, Afghanistan, Argentina and the Australian state of New South Wales have experienced some of their worst droughts in living memory.

These droughts were not coincidental – a NASA report has identified 30 global hotspots where freshwater supplies are in danger. Some of the sites – the Aral Sea and, to a lesser degree, the Caspian Sea (both in Central Asia) – came as no surprise. However, the satellite data, which tracked global freshwater trends from 2002 to 2016, found that, for example, supplies have declined dramatically in China’s Xinjiang province, primarily because the region’s groundwater is being depleted by industry and irrigation.

NASA's latest indicator of freshwater hotspots


UNESCO estimates the rate of groundwater withdrawals has risen by 1% a year since the 1980s. That usage is unevenly split between agriculture (69%), industry (19%) and households (12%), according to Aquastat, the database of global water usage. Even at present levels of consumption, some four billion people – over half of the world’s population – suffer severe droughts at least one month a year.

These are alarming statistics. So, what can we do to preserve the world’s supply of fresh water? After all, putting less water in our kettles is hardly going to change the paradigm. To make a real difference we need commercial businesses to cut back radically on their water usage (see box, right). Indeed, according to UNESCO, large corporations consume 40% of the world’s water and 74% of them agree they need to use less.

Mesopotamian King Naram-Sin, who watched his empire effectively dry out by 2218 BC, would have agreed with that.

Corporate water use

Global water shortages will have enormous impacts on supply chains. A global water report by environmental analyst the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), questioned more than 2,000 high-impact companies on their efforts to manage freshwater resources. Here are the key findings:

Businesses are using more water

Between 2015 and 2018, there was a 50% increase in companies reporting higher water usage. This was most pronounced in Asia and Latin America, and in manufacturing, food & beverages, agriculture and mineral extraction.

Water usage must be part of corporate governance

“Strategic decisions taken by [a company’s] CEO and board can transform a company’s impact on water resources,” the CDP states. “Among companies in high-impact sectors, 77% report exposure to substantive water risks, and 93% report board-level oversight of water issues. But less than a third have incentives on water issues.”

The retail sector is lagging behind

For the first time, the retail sector has performed more poorly than the fossil fuels sector. “Just 24% of retail companies responded to their investors,” says the CDP, “and fewer than 25% have water-related targets or goals.” 

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