Valuing Water – Looking At It Differently

By Dawn McGregor, Debra Tan 22 March, 2021

Happy World Water Day! With this year's theme of valuing water, CWR's McGregor & Tan share 3 different ways to think about water's value

Water has another name, liquid gold. But it’s more valuable as without it, there is no life; CWR has been working to embed water in business & finance, 10 years on it's happening
So, this world water day we look at 3 different ways to value water; 2.2bn people don't have access to safe water but could have 11L/day with the amount of water lost in the US
Texas has its power back but water problems remain - need holistic planning; nowadays, there are new chems in our water that we don’t see - treatment needs to evolve

Water has another name, liquid gold. But it’s more valuable than gold as without it, there is no life. And this year, the theme of the UN’s World Water Day is valuing water and what water means to you.

At CWR, water means everything. As for its value, we have been working to change perspectives, to embed and value water as a business and financial risk – catch up on our years of work here. When we started in 2011, it wasn’t the easiest, but we are happy to say that now, many in these industries know and accept water as a material risk and leaders are acting to not just tackle the risks but capitalise on opportunities. See our latest trends in this space here. Plus, we think that Central Banks action could force a revaluation of assets meaning they will be stranded sooner.

But this World Water Day we look at water’s value in three different ways, ways that will make people truly value water since many of us still take water for granted. And the climate crisis is only going to make global water challenges worse – since water is the most vulnerable resource to climate change – there is no time for anyone not to value water.

1. Differing water values – from desperate to taken for granted – For many in developed countries it is as simple as turning the tap on and tadah, water (usually at a medium/high-quality) comes flowing out – no second thought. Whatever you need the water for, be it bathing, cooking, washing clothes, watering plants, whatever it is, water is there. But that is not the case for 2 billion people – more than a quarter of the global population – who live without access to safe water. Many of whom are in developing countries.

2bn people are living without access to safe water…

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – the value of water differs with people in developing countries who tend to value water more. That is because gaps in access to water supply and sanitation, especially infrastructure mean they have to collect water. Women and girls spend an estimated 200 million hours carrying water every day.

Comparatively, in developed countries, people only tend to value water once access to it is lost be it temporarily or permanently and this is becoming more common as we’ve seen key global cities facing Day Zero and increasing water stress levels. Another common cause is failing or ageing water infrastructure. Case in point, the US, which in a recent report by the American Society of Civil Engineers scored the US an overall C- for its infrastructure; C- for drinking water, D+ for wastewater and D’s for both dams and stormwater. Then there is the stat that a water main break every 2 minutes, and an estimated 6 billion gallons (~22.7 million m3) of treated water is lost each day.

…meanwhile, in the US over 8bn m3 of treated water is lost/year…

…= ~11 litres/day/year for each of those without access

For perspective, that is over 8 billion m3 of treated water lost per annum, which is enough to provide the 2.2 billion people without access to safe water almost 4m3 or nearly 4,000 litres of water each year. That works out to almost 11 litres of treated water per day. To say that this is a serious waste of water is clearly a huge understatement.

The US isn’t the only place with serious water loss from infrastructure. By 2030, Hong Kong aims to reduce the leakage rate in public mains to below 10% (down from ~15% in 2018), which would save around 52.6 million m3 of water per year. Ageing pipes is a main cause for the high volume of water loss. Singapore, with less than 5% loss of its total water supply shows we can do better.

So, water is not just a developing world problem, developed countries also have issues. The big takeaway is that if everyone (especially developing countries) value water properly we could solve this problem. One way to start is by saving water not wasting it, which will alleviate stress on our watersheds, and we would be closer to being able to provide everyone on this planet with access to clean water.

2. If you value your future water supply, water infrastructure needs to adapt to a changing climate & holistic planning needed – Few understand and prepare for the interlinkages of water with energy, food and essentially all aspects of life. Earlier this year Texas suffered a power crisis due to being hit by a polar vortex. 4 million people were without power when the grid locked up due to extreme cold, which scientific research suggests is due to the climate crisis (warming planet).

Energy providers struggled with the cold weather that froze natural gas wells, blocked pipes and froze wind turbines & coal piles. Another consequence of the energy blackouts was the lack of power to run water-treatment plants leaving 7 million Texans with unsafe drinking water and some 12 million with disrupted water services due to burst pipes and staggeringly high energy bills. So while power is now back, water problems remain.

Here it pays to remember the water-energy nexus. Power needs water to generate and water needs power to clean and deliver from source to tap. Adding the wrong type of power can accelerate GHG emissions, which can exacerbate water scarcity. Holistic planning is a must.

Texas has its power back after the storm but water problems remain; need holistic planning to build real adaptation

Texas is one case, but it clearly shows water’s interlinkages and the need for holistic planning, especially for adaptation. Other places in the world have been able to provide power and other utilities in extreme cold and that is due to the winterization of their critical infrastructure, which Texas does not have.

Impacts from extreme weather events are not limited to the US. Asia is the region most exposed to physical climate risk. Severe flooding in Jakarta triggered power outages and forced more than 1,000 people to evacuate their homes. We need to build a resilient future, one with holistic solutions that tackle the interlinkages – see 6 Adaptation Principles  from the World Bank.

3. Value clean water! If we are not careful, new chemicals can make safe water unsafe – Water borne diseases are a plenty – cholera, typhoid, dysentery, escherichia coli and malaria. Many of which people associate with developing countries but are not limited to them and actually developed countries are facing emerging water pollutants.

Nowadays, there are new chems in our water that we don’t see or measure; treatment infrastructure needs to evolve

Nowadays, there are many things in water that we don’t see and haven’t measured. We rely heavily on sanitation & filtration systems and water treatment. However, water treatment infrastructure is generally old and has not evolved to deal with new chemicals that could have entered our water systems. To a certain extent, global drinking water standards should also possibly be revisited for such. These new chemicals and pollutants include microplastics, antibiotics and Persistent organic pollutants – more on these below.

Microplastics (plastic particles <5mn in length) are an emerging pollutant (our clothes are a big source) that have been detected in marine waters, wastewaters, freshwaters, bottled water and even food and air. There is limited information on the effects of microplastics on humans though we know it is detrimental to the environment, especially marine life. A research paper in Jan 2021 found the first evidence of microplastic in human placenta.

Antibiotics are another pollutant in our water. The increasing global use and overuse of antibiotics has led to large quantities of them being detected in wastewater treatment plants, freshwaters and marine waters. This in turn is contributing to increasing antibiotic resistance among the population which forms a cycle for stronger antibiotics to be created.

Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) are toxic chemicals that can be transported by water and affect human health and the environment. They persist for long periods of time in the environment and can pass through the food chain. A significant source of POPs is the textiles industry, which uses hundreds of chemicals and is notorious for minimal wastewater treatment. If we value our health, we need to re-think water standards to re-think these emerging and new challenges.

Water is invaluable. Take time this World Water Day to think what water means for you

Water is invaluable and hopefully these three perspectives have made you look at water in a different way.  So, take the time this World Water Day to think what water means for you and what can you do to make our future more water secure. Happy World Water Day!

Further Reading

  • 5 Trends For 2021: The Year of the Ox – Will the Ox deliver it’s well known strength and stability and turn stubborn “old” cows into raging bulls for a better planet? Find out what the lunar new year has in store for us in our 5 trends
  • Fight Climate, Save Water – Happy World Water Day! This year it’s all about water & climate – join China Water Risk’s Woody Chan as he explores how they interlink and threats ahead
  • Water: Leave No One Behind – Happy World Water Day! This year the theme is ‘Leaving no one behind’ so why do we still not have ‘water for all’? Climate change will only make it more difficult – let’s get our act together & start with this update from China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor
  • Nature For Water In China & HK – Happy World Water Day! Given this year’s “Nature for Water” theme, we sat down with experts on nature-based solutions in China & Hong Kong from sponge cities to rivers and wetlands
  • Wastewater: Good To The Last Drop – Happy World Water Day! In the year of wastewater, we look at China’s management of the ‘waste’. Plus, what does the 13FYP hold? Action; given rising wastewater discharge & low re-use rates
Dawn McGregor
Author: Dawn McGregor
Dawn leads CWR’s work to help corporates navigate increasingly disruptive & material risks from water & climate threats, as well as transitional risks in the supply chain arising from new regulations in China. Here, Dawn engages extensively with the global fashion industry delivering on-ground workshops in China to keynotes and strategic input at European HQs. She has written at length on the end of dirty and thirsty fast fashion and her report to overcome gaps between brands and manufacturers for a clean and circular future inspired the industry to create a new wastewater tool. Dawn also works closely with the property and tourism sectors where she not only conducts strategic assessments of their exposure but builds collective action toward resilience via closed door working groups and invite-only events. Having helped build CWR, Dawn is a frequent keynote, panellist & moderator at events, including being twice selected as the lead-rapporteur at World Water Week. Her articles are cited in various industry publications including the UN’s ‘World Without Water’. Dawn previously worked in a global investment bank assessing geo-political risk, crisis management and business resiliency. She was born and bred in Hong Kong and has lived in France, England, Singapore and Beijing.
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Debra Tan
Author: Debra Tan
Debra heads the CWR team and has steered the CWR brand from idea to a leader in the water risk conversation globally. Reports she has written for and with financial institutions analyzing the impact of water risks on the Power, Mining, Agricultural and Textiles industries have been considered groundbreaking and instrumental in understanding not just China’s but future global water challenges. One of these led the fashion industry to nominate CWR as a finalist for the Global Leadership Awards in Sustainable Apparel; another is helping to build consensus toward water risk valuation. Debra is a prolific speaker on water risk delivering keynotes, participating in panel discussions at water prize seminars, numerous investor & industry conferences as well as G2G and academic forums. Before venturing into “water”, she worked in finance, spending over a decade as a chartered accountant and investment banker specializing in M&A and strategic advisory. Debra left banking to pursue her interest in photography and also ran and organized philanthropic and luxury holidays for a small but global private members travel network She has lived and worked in Beijing, HK, KL, London, New York and Singapore and spends her spare time exploring glaciers in Asia.
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