THE BLOG
02/26/2008 10:25 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Water's Urgent Message at the World Economic Forum

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"One of the problems that we face is that climate change is on the ascendant, and people are not always making the links to water as they perhaps should. I think that's coming and over the next two to three years water will progressively build into a really central component of the Davos agenda." -- John Elkington, SustainAbility

DAVOS, Switzerland -- Water, water everywhere, so let us stop to think. The recent World Economic Forum at Davos put the substance that defines life (and economic bottom lines) at center stage, with at least seven sessions focused on water's varied challenges, business impacts, policy and future.

But despite the fact that human beings themselves are comprised mostly of water, we are, also, only too human. The major buzz at Davos was about the things that often grab and distract us from the "big picture" the forum seeks: a precipitous plunge on Wall Street and a $7 billion flaming financial scandal in France.

It's too easy to take water for granted, so kudos to U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon, who put the put the bull's eye into the headlines. "Water," he announced, "is one of the most daunting challenges faced by the world today."

I'd like to propose an alteration to that wise pronouncement. It's true, our relationship to water will define our future in this century. But the challenge is not water itself, but the way we perceive it and ourselves. We have the technology. Many of the solutions are within reach. The necessities of long-term planning (read: climate, efficiency, cleaning up what we have) are clearer than ever to the business community. At the WEF, for example, both Pepsi and Coca-Cola announced funding for new initiatives to bring safe drinking water to children in Africa and other stressed areas in the developing world.

What we lack is the ability to see with new eyes and the will to transform ourselves. We keep doing the same things, with results that achieve more of not enough. Despite the very real enthusiasm of the Davos leaders and the water community there, I feel a bit of deja vu. How far have we come on water?

In 2000, the UN rolled out its Millennium Development Goals in advance of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. Laudable as they are, the goals barely reflect the sheer global will necessary to tackle the immense challenges of climate and water, not to mention poverty, biodiversity and other looming threats. Just before the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, at an organizational meeting at the Brazilian Embassy in Washington, Chris Flavin of WorldWatch told us, "These are not easy times for social/environmental issues. It's easier to come up with a list of failures." Nitin Desai, then Secretary General for the WSSD implored: "We've got to get up, get going and do something."

It's been a long six years since, and there have been failures -- not in intent, but in mass momentum. 2003 brought us the International Year of Freshwater and, soon after, Water for Life Decade (which expires in 2015), and World Water Forums in Kyoto and Mexico City.

Thankfully, each of these have been steps forward, but not leaps. Maybe the world wasn't ready to hear that it was running dry. Could that be changing?

The Water for the Poor Act passed in late 2005. Only two years later, we were learning that the developed world, in places such as Atlanta the Colorado plateau, is not immune to water challenges. And more and more leaders, like those gathered in the Congress Centre in Davos, are seeing the connections between water, economic security and their shareholders.

But, still, where's the tipping point for water? The fulcrum where awareness meets action? When will taxpayers be willing to part with billions of dollars to clean up the U.S. Great Lakes, enact stiff conservation measures and increase foreign aid through water programs?

"We'll need to do some serious myth-busting," said Brian Collins, WEF participant. "The old myths for water no longer work."

These are the myths we need to bust, he explains to me at a late-night cafe just down a snow-covered path from the highly secured hub of activity in Davos: "Water is free, it's eternal, infinite, forever. Water always cleans itself. Water is where we throw everything away. Water is a gift from God that stays pure."

Beyond the reasoned, but heavily laden rhetoric of the water experts, water needs a new narrative for the 21st century. A rich tapestry of commitment, awareness, engagement, collaboration all topped with a dose of harsh reality.

Did it find one in Davos?

"In a word, Yes. Yes. Yes," said Margaret Catley-Carlson with enthusiasm. She's chairperson of the Global Water Partnership, the collaborative organization formed by the World Bank, UNDP and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The response may take a while to filter through and gain the mindshare, she believes, but we're about to be hit by a tsunami of interest from the corporate sector.

"What's great about this meeting," Catley-Carlson said enthusiastically during a lunch break, "is that the business community is saying, 'Let's talk about this.' I'm very glad when they talk about bringing drinking water to people that don't have it. [But businesses] are now talking about the self-interest of well-managed water. And I think that that's quite a big step forward." (see video interview and transcript in another blog entry)

Seven forum sessions focused on water (schedule and summaries are also included in a separate entry) and the issue got off to a vigorous start with Ban Ki-moon's emphatic description of water scarcity and management as humanity's greatest challenge -- equal to or greater than climate change.

"The challenge of securing safe and plentiful water for all," Ban said, "is one of the most daunting challenges faced by the world today." This echoes a message he delivered with little fanfare in December at the Asia-Pacific Water Summit. His words may be the same, but the audience, comprised of global leaders and some of the most successful businesspeople in human history, carried more weight with the promise that it would trickle through the ranks.

Water's urgent message in Davos was diluted somewhat by news of the U.S. economic decline and the breaking story of Societe General's rogue trader who rattled the European financial industry. It may take a few more turns, but the rivers of awareness are touching many shores. Many credit the WEF with giving climate a significant boost of business cred when it was reached similar pinnacle status in 2007.

Even with the distractions (the panoply of water sessions received modest media attention), John Elkington, noted "dean of the corporate-responsibility movement," remains optimistic that water received the long-term sling-shot effect from this year's meeting. Elkington, founder of SustainAbility the London-based consultancy, said that Davos priorities inevitably become global business priorities. (see video interview and transcript in separate blog entry)

"I think the way the Davos community responds to big issues is to pick them up and play with them for a while," Elkington said. "But longer term, the ideal is that the new perspectives and priorities are shot through everything that happens here. So last year for example, climate change was a very big issue. It is this time too. But the real thinking and action is tending to happen in some of the parallel and side events. My hope would be over the next 18 months to a year water comes center stage at Davos. But within a very short period after that it's shot through everything the World Economic Forum and its partners do."

Elkington echoed Ban-ki Moon's assertion that water was a challenge equal to climate. "One of the problems that we face is that climate change is on the ascendant, and people are not always making the links to water as they perhaps should," Elkington said. "I think that's coming and over the next two to three years water will progressively build into a really central component of the Davos agenda."

So did a few days in the Swiss Alps help craft the new myths for water?

They certainly upped the buzz-factor for words such as "water footprint" and "supply chain sustainability." Obvious players such as Nestle, Coca-Cola and Pepsi painted a potentially grave picture for the future -- and their shareholders -- if they, their suppliers and their customers fail to recognize and respond to the water crisis. And they worked hard to demonstrate proactive, progressive response. Even not-so-obvious players from manufacturing, shipping and the service industry are starting to think about how water impacts their products and services. Said one senior executive of a major consulting firm: "This is the next big issue and my clients want to know how it will affect them."

Klaus Schwab, the forum's ubiquitous host and founder, helped put water on this gilded stage with a bottom-line, business focus. But he seemed to do it with humility, sincerity and hope. "The Davos Man and Woman," he said in a press release, "are aware of all the challenges and, in a pragmatic way, they do what they can to mitigate the risks and address the challenges. They also see the opportunities in the world. But if we don't address the challenges, even the greatest opportunities will not be enough to guarantee the future of humankind."

I've come back to my draft of this blog several times, not sure whether to be optimistic or pessimistic. I've heard the words before, from the Powerpoint plenaries at world water forums to the halls of the U.N. during the Commission on Sustainable Development meeting series. But never before, I'm beginning to feel, have so many of the world's corporate leaders made the connection that water is life, for them, their businesses and the rest of us on the blue planet.

Related headlines

Pepsi announces $8.5 million in grants to Columbia University's Earth Institute and H2O Africa

Coca-Cola announces $1 million grant to Global Water Challenge for Ashoka Changemakers competition

Related: BrandWeek coverage

"Water has displaced climate change as Davos delegates' chief worry outside the US economy, with no fewer than nine water-related events on the programme, compared with just one last year." Financial Times

Global crises from escalating demand for fresh water and inadequate supply are as urgent as efforts to tackle climate change - yet are more vexing and complicated, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2008 heard today. World Economic Forum press release