Monica Ellis

Chief Executive Officer, Global Environment & Technology Foundation and Chief Executive Officer, Global Water Challenge

Water supply and quality challenges are growing increasingly acute. This trend is expected to continue, with the greatest impacts in Africa, West Asia, China, India and Indonesia – the future growth markets for many companies. Experts predict that by 2015, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas.

Today, nearly 1 billion people worldwide lack access to safe water, making it one of the world’s most significant yet underreported public health challenges. When you couple that with the 2.6 billion people who lack sanitation, the true scope of the challenge becomes clear. Yet despite these grim statistics, this is one of the most solvable issues of our time. Companies have an important role to play in the solution.

A growing number of companies are stepping up their leadership on water issues out of recognition that water is a basic element of a healthy, vibrant and economically viable community. Clean water provides the underpinnings for prosperity. Without clean water access, we often find economic and social instability.

A company that is interested in leading the change toward solutions must first make sure that its own house is in order. Is your own water use as efficient as possible? Are you setting targets to improve your efficiency over time? How do you impact the watersheds where you operate? Outside of your operations, how are you working to improve water quality and access within the communities where you operate? Do your own employees have access to safe water and sanitation at home? Once those issues are addressed, companies can further expand outward to examine their impacts and their ability to be “change-makers” at the regional, national and global levels.

Companies that tackle water issues in concentric circles that radiate outward are able to address community needs while mitigating important business risks. This includes risk to the business from issues such as climate change. Water will be one of the first resources affected in locations where climate change is felt, particularly in coastal and water-scarce regions. This will likely exacerbate water availability problems, especially in emerging growth markets such as China and India.

Companies need to evaluate climate change risks holistically – and not just in terms of whether they will have enough water to operate their own businesses. They should also think about water impacts on their workers and their social license to operate. If employees don’t have access to safe water, then they are more prone to waterborne diseases and won’t be effective at their jobs.

Over the last decade, I have seen amazing progress among companies that have decided to tackle water as a front-line issue. The challenge, however, is this: Are they addressing it fast enough and in the places with the greatest needs? Ford is one of a number of leading companies that are members of Global Water Challenge, which is investing in collaborative solutions to expand access to clean water and sanitation to those in need.

The water challenge is too large for any one sector to tackle alone. Public and private groups must work together to find sustainable solutions. For example, through efforts by governments, organizations and private-sector actors, roughly 200 million people have gained access to clean water over the past decade.

I applaud Ford’s recognition of water as an issue material to its business. It’s a very powerful thing when companies understand their environmental footprints and choose to leverage this understanding for the greater good. When a company like Ford takes this step, that gets the attention of competitor companies and stimulates momentum. It is this momentum that provides perhaps the best hope for solving the global water crisis.