“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” - W.H. Auden, “First Things First”
It’s no secret that clean, potable water serves an indispensable role in sustaining our health, biodiversity, and economic security; it is a resource that many communities in the United States (with some noteworthy exceptions) are fortunate to be able to take for granted. However, this is not the reality for billions across the globe: one in three people worldwide lacks access to safe drinking water.
Water scarcity is not just an issue affecting developing countries, though: population growth and rapid urbanization are driving a dramatic uptick in water consumption worldwide, while climate change is poised to alter rainfall patterns and make water supplies more unpredictable. Approximately two billion people currently live in water-stressed countries, a number that’s projected to grow as a result of climate change and population growth. By 2071, almost half of the United States’ 204 freshwater basins could be unable to meet demand, creating serious water shortages in some regions.
Additionally, water quality the world over is being jeopardized by pollution, which occurs when harmful substances—whether industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals or fecal matter—enter a body of water, harming humans and surrounding ecosystems alike. This pollution originates from various sources, but it’s been determined that most issues related to water quality are caused by “intensive agriculture, industrial production, mining and untreated urban runoff and wastewater.” In short, human activity has a huge role to play.
We wanted to take a closer look at just why preserving access to clean, safe water is so important. Because water pervades all aspects of life on Earth, it is inherently interconnected with a number of key sustainability issues. Here are just a few of them:
Health and wellness
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adequate water consumption is essential for regulating our body temperature, lubricating our joints, protecting the spinal cord, and aiding in effective removal of waste from the body.
Water also plays an essential role in sanitation practices that are widely promoted as a first-line defense against viruses and infectious diseases. However, a report released last year revealed that approximately 2.3 billion people worldwide lack basic handwashing facilities. This includes here in the United States, where some 30 percent of the Navajo Nation’s indigenous residents do not have access to running water.
On a global scale, millions of people each year are exposed to health hazards and preventable illnesses simply because they lack access to suitable water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services. The World Health Organization found that, in 2016, 1.9 million deaths globally were attributable to inadequate WASH facilities and consumption of unsafe drinking water.
The presence of chemicals in water sources is of growing concern given the potential impacts on wildlife and human health. Known industrial contaminants include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—often referred to as “forever chemicals,” as they don’t break down in the natural environment or in the human body—that have been linked to reproductive, developmental, and immune defects, as well as cancer, in humans. In addition, when nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus enter a body of water, usually from agricultural runoff, they can create toxic algal blooms that make humans sick (and drive up water treatment costs, often passed along to consumers in the form of higher utility bills). As we’ll explore in further detail, health and wellness is strongly linked with outcomes in other sustainability areas, too.
In regions where access to clean water is scarce, it is women and girls who tend to bear the greatest burden. One study spanning 24 countries in sub-Saharan Africa found that, among households that spend more than 30 minutes per trip collecting water, adult women were most often responsible for fetching said water, followed by girls.
Often, these water collection activities impede access to education for young girls, and stymy women’s economic activity by limiting their ability to pursue work outside of the household. In addition, the repeated act of carrying heavy water containers over long distances can have a range of negative health consequences such as musculoskeletal injury, soft tissue damage, and early-onset arthritis. And where pregnant women give birth in medical facilities that lack adequate drinking water and sanitation facilities, they—and their baby—are exposed to greater mortality risk.
Finally, although poor access to clean and potable water is not the root cause of gender-based violence, strong correlations have been drawn between household water scarcity and an uptick in violence against women. In areas where women are forced to travel further afield (and thus sometimes into evening hours), they are often more susceptible to sexual harassment, abuse and rape. In addition, women have reported marital tension and domestic violence resulting from disputes over the amount of water they brought home. This confluence of factors can have a profound effect on women’s physical, and psychosocial, wellbeing.
Education has long been seen as a powerful means of transcending socioeconomic strata, improving wellbeing, and escaping poverty. However, as we alluded to above, lack of access to clean water can significantly impede the likelihood that a child will attend school and receive a robust education.
The reasons for this are multifaceted: first, in developing countries, many young children are expected to contribute to their households by assisting their families not just with water retrieval, but with other chores that become more time-intensive with a dearth of readily available water. The extended time spent on these activities, perhaps unsurprisingly, limits children’s ability to attend school and study.
Furthermore, the absence of sanitation facilities in schools is an issue that can have a particularly noticeable impact on female children’s education. In developing countries, many young girls report not attending school because their schools lack facilities that would allow them to manage their periods safely and with dignity. One study conducted in China suggested that an absence of clean water put menstruation-age girls at a serious disadvantage, on average leading to a two-year decrease in schooling duration, or a 13 percent drop in the probability of enrollment.
As we have already noted, a lack of clean water can considerably affect health outcomes. This, in turn, may translate to less favorable education outcomes, since the prevalence of waterborne illnesses—diarrhea, cholera, intestinal worm infections, and others—can impair students’ cognitive ability and performance, or cause children and teachers alike to miss school days entirely. One study conducted among schoolchildren in Egypt demonstrated that absenteeism related to diarrheal disease was 33 percent lower among students that were actively encouraged to engage in handwashing practices, and were afforded the provisions to do so. A similar undertaking in Kenya saw a 26 percent drop in absenteeism overall. In fact, according to the United Nations, some 443 million school days globally are lost each year to water-related illness.
Access to water and efforts to tackle global poverty are undeniably and inextricably linked. On the one hand, insufficient water resources can contribute to financial hardship—as we’ve noted, poor health due to inadequate water supply can impede educational attainment, holding individuals back from securing higher-paying jobs with the potential to lift them and their families out of poverty. Similarly, water-related health issues inhibit productivity, limiting the amount of work that the individual can do and thus reducing their earning potential (not to mention generating healthcare costs).
On the other hand, the subsequent scarcity of financial resources can render the individual even less able to secure safe water, which means they may spend a disproportionate amount of their income on water, or continue to rely on unsafe sources that further compromise their health. This continued lack of water and financial resources can keep individuals, families and communities in what’s been termed a “dynamic poverty trap,” characterized by a cycle of financial poverty, low agricultural production, and increasing environmental degradation. Conversely, where water supply and sanitation provisions are improved, food insecurity is lessened and newly created employment opportunities can empower individuals to improve their financial situation.
Weighing the various factors at play, it becomes increasingly clear that water fulfills a pivotal role in helping individuals and families break the cycle of poverty. Unfortunately, this vicious cycle is only predicted to intensify in the absence of preventive action: World Bank research has suggested that climate change’s impacts on water distribution could force more than 100 million people into severe poverty by 2030. Extreme weather events such as droughts and floods are already becoming more prevalent, devastating homes and threatening the livelihoods of rural, agriculture-dependent communities, while the subsequent agricultural production shocks could drive up the price of food for those that can afford it least. Cumulatively, these climate-related water challenges stand to significantly diminish global economic growth, thus preventing millions of people worldwide from escaping poverty.
What can be done to preserve access to clean, potable water?
Clean drinking water and sanitation services are essential to the realization of all human rights, but unfortunately, their distribution is highly uneven and unequal. There are various stakeholders when it comes to solving this equation, each with vital roles to play.
At Ethic, we believe that large corporations are key to implementing lasting, widespread change. And when it comes to water, their impact is undeniable—the global agricultural sector, to which countless U.S. companies are exposed, either through direct operations or via their supply chains, is far and away the largest consumer of water, accounting for approximately 70 percent of annual water withdrawals globally. Other industries are responsible for some 19 percent of water usage.
That’s why we track data on company behaviors surrounding water intensity, wastewater management, deforestation, carbon emissions, and pollution—among other outcomes, each of these can significantly impact water quality/quantity and affect communities worldwide. Poor water stewardship can also carry material financial risks, including public backlashes and reputational damage, for companies. As investors become increasingly attuned to the harms associated with irresponsible water usage, companies that fail to protect water sources can expect increasing scrutiny and potentially financial repercussions.
As is probably clear by now, water resource issues cannot be viewed in isolation, and instead must be considered as integral to economic and social development—all while taking care to preserve the natural environment. This is the thinking behind Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), a widely accepted framework that has emerged in recent years to replace the traditionally fragmented and inefficient approach to water usage. Instead, IWRM promotes cross-border, cross-sectoral collaboration between governments and private sector entities in an effort to encourage “the co-ordinated development and management of water, land and related resources, in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.” This approach has also been touted as a means of reducing social conflict over competing water needs: a promising possibility when one considers the recent global uptick of violent disputes over freshwater access.
Finally, of course, at the individual level, we can all play our part, as insignificant as it might seem when we weigh the outsize influence of government and industry. At home, we can opt to save water through conservation efforts—whether that’s taking shorter showers, using a low-flow showerhead, ensuring that leaks are fixed expeditiously, or various other actions. With that said, we believe that investment portfolios are a much more powerful way of influencing corporate behavior and driving the kind of systemic change that’s needed: collectively, we can allocate capital toward companies that are actively committed to limiting their impact on our planet and its water resources.
Most of all, we must remember that water is a finite and irreplaceable resource—and, given its fundamental role as the basis of all life on Earth, it’s one we can’t afford to lose.