Global Water Crisis Demands Business and Government Action

01/24/2015 01:45 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2015

You may be surprised to learn that the one issue that keeps the world's leaders up at night is not weapons of mass destruction or cross-border conflict. It's not the threat of another fiscal crisis or the spread of infectious diseases. It's water.

The World Economic Forum announced this week at its annual meeting in Davos that the global water crisis is now the largest risk and greatest impact to our lives and our planet. The sobering truth is that world leaders now view the lack of access to safe drinking water and extreme weather events such as catastrophic drought as bigger risks than anything else.

Water has made the list four times, but this is the first time that it has taken the top spot for risks with the greatest potential impact. That's a wakeup call that demands the immediate attention of business and government leaders.

Here in the United States, it's been easy to dismiss the lack of fresh water as a real threat. We treat water as an inexhaustible resource, and most Americans view water scarcity as a problem confined to California and other Western states. We take notice only when the inevitable drought headlines make us look more closely at our grocery bills.

The production of food accounts for the vast majority of the water we use -- 80 percent in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In California, 10 percent of our water is used to farm just almonds alone. Yet recent studies show that nearly one-third of all food in the United States is thrown out. All told, 31 percent of the total U.S. food supply is wasted. Surely we can use less water to produce the amount of food the country actually will eat.

Experts have been warning us for decades that access to fresh water is the coming crisis; while that should be alarming, little has been done. The truth is that most companies have a role to play in finding solutions to the water crises. You don't have to be a food producer or one of the biggest users of water to be impacted dramatically by this issue. In fact, the Burson-Marsteller/CNBC Corporate Perception Indicator recently found that 62 percent of the general public in developed and emerging markets want to hear more from corporations about social responsibility. The business community has an obligation to make a meaningful impact on societal issues like the shortage of safe water.

If water is important to your business, here are four critical steps to consider:

  1. Use the World Economic Forum's Global Risks 2015 report to raise awareness of water scarcity and begin assessing your own water footprint. We can only manage what we measure.

  • Work with employees at all levels and partner with trusted experts to develop a plan to drive meaningful action within your company. Embrace aggressive water use reduction targets.
  • Engage with stakeholders -- investors, community members, regulators, third-party advocates and the media -- about what your company is doing to address water risks.
  • Lead by example and communicate clearly and boldly about your vision and commitments. This is the chance to contribute to a turning point in how we protect the world's most precious natural resource.
  • Many of us, like me, who live in the western United States know that one big thunderstorm isn't going to solve the problem. Nor will taking shorter showers. Now is the time for real leadership, and for the vision and willingness to embrace new technologies and techniques to help our nation do more with far less water.

    This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to mark the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting 2015 (in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Jan. 21-24). Read all the posts in the series here.