Water stewardship: Does the OECD practice what it preaches?

Today, to mark World Water Week, we’re publishing the second in a series of three articles by Liisa-Maija Harju, Environmental Coordinator in the OECD Operations Service on the OECD’s environmental performance.

This week, when world’s water experts are gathering in Stockholm, Sweden, to attend the annual World Water Week, more than one in six people worldwide 894 million don’t have access to improved water sources. To put this into perspective, imagine if nobody in Europe (plus another 100 million world citizens!) had no access to safe drinking water.

Global water demand is projected to increase by 55% by 2050, due to growing needs for manufacturing, energy generation and domestic use. Almost four billion people will live in water-stressed river basins by 2050 if better policies are not introduced. The OECD recognises freshwater as one of the four most pressing environmental challenges today (the others being climate change, biodiversity, and health impacts of pollution). The issues of water security, water and green growth, as well as climate change adaptation, are an important focus of our work.

Australia, for example, has undertaken a long period of water policy reform, and Mexico recently initiated a Water Reform Agenda. In Meeting the water reform challenge, the OECD outlines three fundamental areas that need to be addressed whatever reform agendas are pursued by governments:

  • Sustainable financing lies at the heart of many of the solutions to improved water management.
  • The governance and institutional arrangements that are in place
  • And coherence between water policies and policies in place in other sectors of the economy (such as agricultural support subsidies).

The private sector appears to be taking water stewardship seriously, too. For instance, Coca-Cola, whose products are based on water, has engaged in more than 386 Community Water Partnership projects in 94 countries since 2005. Unilever’s assessment shows that their laundry, skin and hair products account for over three-quarters of the company’s overall water footprint. They will halve the water associated with the consumer use of their products by 2020. Levi Strauss has pioneered the clothing sector’s studies related to the water use throughout the life-cycle of products. Together with Procter & Gamble, Levi Strauss raises awareness about the environmental and economic advantages of washing in cold water because, for example, 45 % of the water used in the lifecycle of a pair of 501 jeans occurs during  customers’ wash-and-dry home care.

How about us here at the OECD itself? Water use is one of the key environmental policy areas we work with. We reduced the amount of water used to run the our facilities by 6% over 2010-2011.

So far we’ve installed aerators, small metal balls, in the bathroom and kitchen faucets. These reduce water consumption by 20 %. We’ve put in place eco toilet flush systems that reduce toilets’ water usage by 50%. We studied whether rainwater could be collected and used to supply water to our garden’s irrigation system but this turned out not to be both technically feasible and cost effective.

We also have 54 drinking water fountains in our office buildings because according to the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME), filtered Parisian tap water is safe and 1000 times more environmentally friendly than bottled water. Tap water is also 1000 times less expensive than bottled water. We do however purchase bottled water. In 2010, for example, we purchased 232,000 0.5L-bottles of water that were used by that year’s 50,000 visitors and 2300 employees, but we are currently also studying their replacement by drinking water fountains.

Global water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century. This trend has to be reversed, and we need to be part of this change by finding new ways to minimise water use in our buildings and by reducing the consumption of bottled water. Hopefully, we will soon be able to calculate the real water footprint of our operations in order to perform as well as we can.

Useful links

OECD work on water

OECD: Meeting the water reform challenge

OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction

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  1. Gaetan Deremince (@aivo) - 01/09/2012 Reply

    This article makes me thirsty.

    Good work done with the reduced of water used at OECD. Keep on!

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