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

Where is our water going?

Sunday sees the start of World Water Week and today’s post comes to us from Professor Andrew K. Dragun, an Economist with the Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University in Brisbane Australia. He is currently editor of the International Journal of Water and the International Journal of Agricultural Resources Governance and Ecology.

Water is emerging as one of the most serious and controversial resource and environmental issues of the twenty first century. Fundamental water shortage, chronic environmental despoliation of water systems and irreversible debilitation of associated land and marine systems looms, while public expenditures on increasing and improving the water supply are increasingly unaffordable.

A great many of the world’s water “markets” are distorted as a consequence of inappropriate incentive–disincentive systems. The observations of Professor R.H Whitebeck, commenting in the Geographical Journal on early irrigation development in California in 1919, that irrigation development “… was occurring at too rapid a rate and at too high a price”, remain as poignant now as they were insightful nearly a hundred years ago. From the experience of the irrigation colonies of the Chaffey Brothers in Northern Victoria to the Central Arizona Project and, the failures of irrigation in the Central Asian republics, the lack of financial viability of irrigation in the absence of substantial public subsidy is a general rule – even in the paragon of efficient trickle irrigation and high cost irrigation water, Israel.

In many cases the drivers of water development have been political expediency and a desire to end food shortages in many poor countries, with little attention to the costs, the benefits and the prices of water.  The inevitable result of the irrigation-led revolution in water development and regulation, seen throughout much of the twentieth century, is that a huge amount of water is being wasted… (more…)

Clean water, cold vaccines, cell phones = a simple way to save lives

This post comes to us from Harvey Rubin MD, PhD. Professor of Medicine and Computer Science, University of Pennsylvania and Alice Conant, Harvey Mudd College.  The program they are working on, “Energy for Health” connects access to vaccines and clean water in developing countries with access to the fastest spreading technology in the world: cell phones.

According to the World Health Organization, 3 million people die each year from diseases spread by unclean water. These deaths are a direct result of the current water crisis in developing countries where more than 1 billion people have inadequate access to clean water and 2.6 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation. Together, unclean water and poor sanitation are the world’s second biggest killer of children.

Additionally, at least 2 million people die each year from vaccine preventable diseases. These deaths are not because there is a lack of vaccines and medications in the world, but because there is an inadequate cold chain — reliable refrigeration and storage units from the point of delivery of the vaccine or medicine in the country to the point of delivery to the patient in rural areas in developing countries.   Maintaining the cold chain is an almost overwhelming challenge in countries where resources are scarce.   The cold chain becomes increasingly unreliable as the distance between primary health centers and sub-health centers increases because of the lack of reliable power sources in the rural areas of developing countries.   This is where the cell phones come in.

A recent New York Times article, “Toilets and Cell phones,” informed the public that there are now more cell phones in India than toilets.  Cell phones are the fastest spreading technology in the world, and customers in developing countries account for two thirds of the universal mobile phones in use. Cell phones rely on cell towers, and each tower has its own supply of power. Our goal is to harness an adequate portion of this electrical energy to power refrigeration units and water filtration systems.  This synergy clearly benefits the cell phone service provider as well as the local population—more healthy people, more cell phone users, more cell phone users, more healthy people.  Couldn’t be a better arrangement.

This idea has received huge and enthusiastic support for its potentially transformative impact on world health and human security. By piggybacking access to viable vaccines, medications and clean water onto the fastest spreading industry in the world, we could solve a perplexing global health problem. According to the 2010 World Telecommunications/ICT Development Report, approximately 75% of the world’s rural inhabitants are covered by a mobile cellular signal, and it is estimated that close to 100% of the world will have mobile coverage by 2015.  In order to have mobile coverage you must be within the range of a cell tower (a matter of miles, depending on the territory), which means that if we can utilize the power from the towers to sustain cold chains and water filtration units, by 2015 close to 100% of the world could have access to viable vaccines, medication and clean water.

So far, our first-round calculations behind this technology suggest that it is completely doable. Cell phone towers run on alternating current (AC) power, have a backup energy generator in case the primary electrical supply goes down, and most units already have AC power outlets built into them!  Basic cold chain refrigeration units also run on AC power and consume approximately 200 Watts of power.

As we continue to expand on the research behind “Energy For Health”, we are exploring solutions to the following questions:

1) How does the cell tower distribution correspond with population distribution?

2) How will we monitor the security of the refrigeration and water filtration units?

3) What is a fair and equitable financial model for the installation and maintenance of the systems?

Excitement is growing in our team the University of Pennsylvania and with our partners as we continue to plan the pilot project of this technology and anticipate the enormous impact it will have on healthcare in developing countries. We welcome any ideas and suggestions.