Sustainability 2011/12


Jamie Bartram

The Water Institute at UNC
University of North Carolina
UNC Gillings School of Public Health

Jamie Bartram

If you look back a few decades, the idea of water as a potentially limiting factor for businesses and the economy simply wasn’t there. Companies didn’t recognize that water is critical to their business. Within the last decade, water internationally has increasingly been seen as important, but it didn’t get sexy overnight. Today, of course, water conservation is mainstream but water safety is still a lagging issue.

The Water Institute at UNC works at the triangulated point that fits between water, health and development. We take great care to say that water resources, sanitation and water supply aren’t just concerns for developing countries; even the most developed nations face constraints.

Two years ago, the United Nations recognized water as a human right. That doesn’t mean glibly that an individual can knock on a door and say, “I demand my right to water.” What it does mean is that governments, within their means, need to allocate resources to equitably provide services to their populations in a way that is reasonable and fair.

We’re so under-ambitious about what we do with water that it’s quite scary. How on earth can we be sitting here in the 21st century and have a United Nations Millennium Development Goal – the height of human ambition – of reducing the proportion of people who only have to walk half an hour to collect water, a single bucket at a time. Is that a serious ambition for the 21st century? Our ambition shouldn’t be anything less than reliable, safe water in every house, every hospital, every school and every public marketplace around the globe.

Here at the Water Institute, we believe that if we are to solve water problems, we must confront head-on the “elephants in the room.” One of the biggest “elephants” is the flush toilet. We all crank that handle on the porcelain pedestal and think it’s a marvelous, modern thing. But if you think about it, it’s really a very silly way for us to manage waste. We use enormous volumes of water to dilute material, which then goes through hugely expensive pipes buried underground and which then must be separated out at great cost. And even then, we’re not very good at it; every year there are outbreaks of diseases when sanitary waste gets into the environment and contaminates our water, food or land. Part of the problem is the huge investment that should be made each year to keep up the infrastructure but is often delayed.

Another “elephant” is the way that we manage our water systems. In many parts of the world – even in some wealthier nations – we often have water management systems that are undermanaged and underperforming because of system fragmentation, underfunded systems and an unwillingness to look at more comprehensive, newer management approaches.

To take water and public health issues to a new level, we need commitments from governments, from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and from corporations alike.

The NGOs are out there trying to make the world a better place, and many are doing terrific things. These organizations can bring better performance and more impact from critical self-reflection, but their focus on household water use addresses only a small fraction of overall water use.

Transformational solutions to the water crisis can come from companies that have the skills and resources to address the problem. Whether it’s the utilities that deliver services or the companies that provide materials or the large manufacturers that are the heaviest users and dischargers of water, businesses know how to track performance, evaluate improvements and optimize the use of scarce resources.

For both NGOs and companies to be effective, governments have a role in creating the frameworks and regulations, as well as their own direct roles.

I always say that the role of any agency starts at home, and that’s true for corporations, too. Water has a big role in the workplace, even just in terms of making sure that a company’s employees have access to safe, drinkable water and to clean private toilet facilities.

Companies that are leading on water issues have essentially done three things. They are practicing good management in their workplaces by providing their workers with clean water and clean sanitation. They are improving internal efficiencies and reducing their water footprint. And they are examining their external impacts as a user of water on the communities around them. They’re not treating water as an issue of corporate social responsibility or philanthropy. They are relating it back to how they do business.