As concerns over water scarcity deepen, how will the world’s governments respond? Katharine Earley reviews current developments in water legislation and considers how businesses can expect legislation to change in the future, as policy-makers seek to ensure the availability of water among all user groups.
The UN states that half the world’s population should have access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. Policymakers are also increasingly acknowledging the human right to water, with discussions surrounding access to the world’s precious 3% of fresh water set to intensify.
For businesses, the most relevant regulations are currently those that are concerned with protecting water resources for public water and sanitation services.
The current picture
Today’s water legislation focuses primarily on water use efficiency, water quality and pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency in the US regulates discharges of pollutants into US waters and defines quality standards for surface waters. It also has laws in place to protect America’s shores and marine life.
Specific laws relating to corporate rights to water would raise a multitude of question marks in the US, explains Gabriel Eckstein, director of the International Water Law Project and law professor at Texas Wesleyan University, hence why some jurisdictions are starting to impose across-the-board regulations (such as quantifying and monitoring actual use, system loses, and efficiency).
Others are trying to reduce water usage by purchasing existing water rights and retiring them, or helping rights holders to become more efficient and then retiring the portion of the right they no longer need.
The European Union’s Water Framework Directive aims to ensure that polluted waters within the EU member states are cleaned and kept clean in the future. The directive addresses pollution from urban waste water and agriculture and defines a single system of water management via its river basin management plan.
This December, the European Commission will present its Blueprint to Safeguard Europe’s Water Resources in Brussels. The overall objective of the forthcoming Blueprint is to enhance EU water policy, ensuring good quality water in sufficient quantities for all legitimate users. It will draw on a range of reports and reviews, including the recent GAP analysis of the Water Scarcity and Droughts Policy in the EU.
This details seven new policy areas. It emphasises the importance of reducing river basin stress, promoting efficient supply and demand management, pricing water effectively and improving land use planning and drought management initiatives. It also recommends fostering a water saving culture, and highlights a perceived lack of adequate policy response and governance for effective action on water.
Under the UK’s Water Industry Act 1991, water companies in England and Wales are obliged to encourage their customers to use water efficiently. Water usage by businesses is almost universally metered. Additionally, the water and sewerage industry regulator Ofwat has introduced annual activity-based water efficiency targets for water companies for the period 2010-15.
The Draft Water Bill from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), introduced in July, unveiled plans to allow businesses in England to ‘shop around’ for water and sewerage suppliers, potentially saving them £2bn.
It also proposes to improve competition in the water industry itself.
Change in the pipeline
Any changes in water legislation will be driven by the need to ensure the ongoing supply of fresh water for all users against an uncertain backdrop of water scarcity, pollution, population growth, rapid urbanisation and climate change.
“In some countries, regulations are moving toward requiring industry to recycle and reuse more water in order to reduce the pressure of water withdrawals on rivers and aquifers,” explains Ruth Matthews, executive director of the Water Footprint Network.
“The requirement for businesses to declare their water footprint is also being discussed. The Netherlands, for example, is looking at ways in which it could use Water Footprint Assessment in policy-making."
Peter Schulte of the Pacific Institute believes that it would not be unreasonable to anticipate more stringent water allocation schemes. Governments may push to raise water rates, he says, catalysing a move towards more water-efficient industrial processes and products.
Water for Life
The Defra Water for Life White Paper urges businesses to adapt to new circumstances and manage water scarcity risks as efficiently as possible. It highlights a range of options available, includes a water technology list, and reinforces the fact that it’s vital for companies to measure and manage their water use and adapt to new technologies.
The paper sets the scene regarding future water risk and the complex challenges ahead, and highlights that government regulation and public money alone will not solve the problems.
It aims to mobilise local groups and maximise local projects in a new ‘catchment-based’ approach, drawing on new sources of funding. It also sets out the government’s priorities going forward. Preventing pollution at source and avoiding expensive water treatments are strong recurring themes, while proposals to curb over-abstraction from rivers are also outlined.
Overall, Water for Life emphasises the need to stimulate innovation and growth, encourage efficiency and improve water services. It explains that the water industry itself must play a vital role in the transition to a green economy. It also highlights the need for businesses to change the way that water is valued and to prioritise water efficiency within their organisations.
Looking to the future
“In order to be effective, any future legislation will need to address the local and global dimensions of water security,” comments Ashok Chapagain, WWF's senior water advisor. "Addressing the water footprint of the whole supply chain in the context of local water availability and usage is the only way forward.
"With growing understanding of water footprints at a corporate and governmental level, and with continued pressure from NGOs, it is inevitable that more transparent and stronger legislation on water will evolve with time.”
In preference to additional regulatory measures, UK policy-makers are currently focusing on promoting voluntary measures and incentives for water companies and businesses to act responsibly. Much of the work to influence responsible approaches to water use is undertaken by WRAP and the Environment Agency.
While no particular country is taking a definitive lead, water security expert Chris White believes that water policy-makers will need to learn from best practice examples around the world. He highlights Singapore’s city-wide sustainability strategy as a good case point – the city was recently recognised as a future city for sustainable water management.
Ruth Matthews of the Water Footprint Network also highlights an example of best practice: brands including Adidas, Puma, Nike, Levi Strauss and H&M have signed a commitment to prevent the discharge of various hazardous chemicals from their supply chain, via the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals initiative.
However best practice examples help to mould future water legislation, it’s clear that a rigorous approach to water stewardship will be vital as companies prepare for the emergence of tighter water regulations.
Katharine Earley is a freelance writer.