How island's historic drought could threaten the global economy

Jim Andrew is chief sustainability officer at PepsiCo. The company recently announced its ambition to be net water positive by 2030. David Banks is chief conservation officer at The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental nonprofit working to create a world where people and nature can thrive. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.

Already pushed to the brink from agricultural demands and other human uses, water in many parts of the world is running dry at an alarming rate.

The Colorado River, for example, which supplies water to more than 40 million people in the US and Mexico and has long suffered from overuse, is now facing its first mandatory use cuts by the US government in the midst of a severe drought. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs in the US, are both at historic lows. Globally, it’s a similar story, with many cities on the verge of depleting their municipal water supplies.

    Let’s be clear: The climate crisis is rapidly accelerating an already existential global water crisis. And just like the climate crisis, time is running out to act on water.

      However, unlike the climate crisis, the world has not sufficiently rallied around a global movement or clear standards to address our shared water challenges. That must change.
      We, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and PepsiCo, believe a global effort to be “net water positive” is essential. For us, this means replenishing more water than we use. And we are calling on businesses, governments, non-profits and citizens to join forces to make it happen.

      Of course, a key challenge is determining how and where to begin. Here are some things to consider:

      Follow the science

      Science-based targets (SBTs) aligned to the latest climate science and verified by external organizations have been critical in guiding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and can be similarly effective in steering net water positive reforms. By using SBTs, companies can ensure that their usage is at a level that will help ensure the water bodies they source from are able to provide a sustainable supply of water that meets both human and ecosystem needs without compromising either.

      A visitor at the Hoover Dam Lookout observation deck above the Colorado River during low water levels in Arizona, Nevada, U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021.
      Together, PepsiCo and The Nature Conservancy, along with other companies and nonprofits, are participating in the corporate advisory group Science Based Targets Network. PepsiCo is also piloting its methodology for water usage in Turkey to further refine the approach. Through this voluntary pilot program, we are gathering and providing water-related data, working with partners to prioritize key high-risk watershed geographies/basins, developing a set of targets, and, once completed, we will share our learnings with the Science Based Target Network.

      Understand the opportunity

      By fully understanding and articulating the economics of the water crisis, we will more clearly see the magnitude of the challenge. For example, in 2020, companies surveyed by the not-for-profit CDP reported financial impacts of water risks at $301 billion — five times higher than the estimated cost of addressing them.
      L’Oreal, for example, has seen how these investments can pay off. In 2015, the cosmetics maker implemented a water recycling system at its plant in Spain. Today, 100% of the water used for industrial processes is cleaned and recycled so it can be used again.

      Stay local

      Customize watershed conservation and replenishment efforts to suit the needs of local communities. By assessing the issues that impact individual watersheds, organizations can build replenishment initiatives best suited for local conditions. For example, in the Western United States, PepsiCo has partnered with the Arbor Day Foundation to replant 880,000 trees that were lost in the California wildfires. Trees are a critical contributor to the water cycle, as they collect and filter rainfall, reducing erosion and helping to maintain water quality. The project is already a third of the way done and is expected to be completed this year, leading to the expected replenishment of 458 million gallons of water per year by 2022.
      Global businesses must address climate change before it's too late
      Efforts to address water security at scale require collaboration among the private and public sectors, civil society, indigenous peoples and local communities. A great example of this is the Greater Cape Town Water Fund, a successful collective effort launched by a coalition of nonprofit, government and company partners to help the city avoid another “Day Zero” — the day in 2018 when the city almost ran out of water.
      Mars Inc., for example, has implemented alternate wetting and drying irrigation, and the company has seen a 32% increase in farmer income and a 30% reduction in water use in Pakistan.
      The impact of these initiatives may seem, on their own, like a drop in the bucket given the magnitude of the global water crisis — and in many ways they are. That is why it is so urgent for companies, governments and NGOs to harness their resources and tackle the water crisis together with the same urgency being applied to climate change.

        For PepsiCo, that means setting our own aggressive goal. Although we’re not yet at the halfway point, by 2030 we plan to become net water positive, aiming to reduce absolute water use and replenish back into the local watershed more than 100% of the water we use in high-water-risk areas.
        Whether or not your organization operates in a region that is water-stressed today, the water crisis affects us all. We each have a stake in addressing the water crisis. And we must act now — before the well runs dry.
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