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Water is a critical part of green economies. Though other green pillars, such as energy and resources, often attract more attention, the importance of water can’t be overstated. Water has to be a part of the conversation if we hope to meet our environmental and developmental goals. Water underpins five of the WHO's Millennium Development Goals: eradicate poverty, promote gender rights, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, and combat diseases.
Some are pretty obvious, while others not so much. But the relationships are there. For example, gender equality doesn't sound like a water issue - until you realise that many women in poor communities spent a lot of time merely collecting water. The lack of access to clean piped water is a massive drain on their energy and thus, how they can develop their opportunities. Similar tangents can be found around maternal and infant health, and the current momentum behind handwashing shows what role water plays around diseases.
Not even energy conservation has such a profound and resonating impact as water conservation. If we want to tackle the development and environmental challenges around us, water provides a good foundation. For example, the UN estimates that a saving of as much as 90% energy and 70% water can be achieved by investing in recovery and reuse of water, such as recycling industrial and municipal wastewater for cooling or other applications.
Water also offers low-hanging fruits which are more attainable in the near-term than reducing waste or establishing greater energy efficiencies. I'll give some examples. Agriculture accounts for three-quarters of global water consumption, and in South Africa, we use around 60% of our water for farming, reported the WWF. This number could be reduced through more effective irrigation - something particularly important to SA, which relies overwhelmingly on rainfall to nourish its crops. If we improved irrigation practices, it would both save resources and secure agriculture's future against shifts in the climate.
Industry and urbanisation are also key areas to find water wins. Industrial sites use a lot of freshwater - globally, by 2025, this figure will grow to 24% of all freshwater used. It's a no-brainer that water recycling will make a big difference. Likewise, most cities can gain by improving their wastewater infrastructure. Effective monitoring and preventative maintenance strategies will also help reduce leaks and water theft - a crime that costs some countries up to half of their annual distribution!
These are low-hanging fruits because, unlike other green strategies, most of what we can do for water can be done today. We don't have to wait for a solar revolution or an effective way to replace plastic. We can improve water management, maintenance, and access right now.
We needn't be motivated by social upliftment alone. Saving water makes a lot of economic sense. When Coca-Cola started taking water management more seriously in 2006, it has since reduced its water use by 25% - or 1 billion litres a year. In Cape Town, Novus Holdings responded to the drought there with investments that, in some processes, saved up to 80% of water. The beauty of water is not only in the opportunities and dividends ready to pay out, but water management can be tackled at broad or nuanced levels. You can start small and build from there. Every step saves you water, putting money back in your pocket and creating a sustainable future for a business, city, or country.
These are not new revelations. South Africa's National Framework for Sustainable Development recognises the importance of water management and savings, and its projects reflect many of the opportunities I mentioned earlier.
Water is not just a prong in a green plan. It's not only one leg of the pot. I believe water is the fundamental lever to realise a green and sustainable future for all. It captures the needs of the social state, the economy, private businesses, citizens - everyone is touched by water. So, let's use water to lead the way for a greener tomorrow by tackling its challenges today. Then we don't have to wait for the future. We can realise it right now. Water is the tide that raises all green ships.