It may be hard for most of us to think about parts of the world being in the grips of a water shortage. Many of us can walk to our sinks and get all the water we want; we can wash our clothes and dishes often (unless we’re camping), and we don’t have to worry whether the water we want to use will suddenly be unavailable or unsafe to drink.
But a growing number of people in the U.S. and around the world face very different situations. According to the United Nations, 1.42 billion people are in “areas of high or extremely high water vulnerability,” and 450 million of those people are children. Stressed and scarce water resources force communities, and the people that rely on this precious resource, to face unimaginable conditions and hardships – from walking miles just to get a bucket of water to inaccessible or unsafe drinking water.
These critical conditions impact every corner of the world. In 2018, Cape Town, South Africa, nearly ran out of water entirely and fears of shortages persist in the country to this day. Mexico City also faces perpetual fears of water shortages, so much so that the city is slowly sinking into the ground as the water table below it is being depleted. And California residents have been subject to water rationing in recent years during times of drought.
Climate change is exacerbating these water insecurity challenges, as changes in weather patterns increase the likelihood of droughts and result in more people living in water-stressed areas. Another cause of water shortages is urbanization—as cities grow, they put more demand on a region’s water supply. Just as economic growth can lead to water supply strains, a lack of water can damage economies: the World Bank estimates that some parts of the world could see GDPs shrink by as much as 6 percent due to water shortages.
Given the scope of these problems, traditional water conservation efforts are insufficient. A growing number of stakeholders now talk about the role of manufacturers and other companies in addressing systemic water scarcity.
Procter & Gamble (P&G) stands among the leading global brands addressing these complex water challenges, with an ambition to help build a water positive future where water can sustain people and nature, now and for generations to come. Ahead, we dig into how they’re working towards this goal, and what other efforts are necessary to build a water-positive future.
Reducing water usage in operations
P&G has operations all around the world and sells a huge variety of products, so its approach to saving water is multi-dimensional. One way the company is tackling the issue is by reducing water in its operations, some of which are in water-stressed areas, to help conserve local water supplies. A plant in Box Elder, Utah, a water-stressed region, saved 150 million liters by finding a way for water in one system to be used as feed water in another. In Chengdu, China, similar water recycling efforts have cut water usage by 45 percent since 2010, saving 280 million liters annually. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to making these facilities more water-efficient, but by encouraging employees at all levels to think about conservation, P&G is now recycling 3.1 billion liters of water per year, with a goal of recycling 5 billion liters per year by 2030 within reach.
Restoring water in water-stressed areas
Water-saving efforts by one company alone don’t get us to a water-positive future. In its quest to get there, P&G is also working with non-profits like Bonneville Environmental Foundation and the World Resources Institute, alongside local stakeholder groups, to identify and support long-term projects and partnerships that will improve, manage and protect water in water-stressed areas. The company has identified 18 water-stressed areas where they can make the biggest, needed impact.
Bringing water back to these areas is a complicated task. Water stress has many causes, and restoring water means looking carefully at local conditions and identifying what needs to be done. P&G is therefore working with local partners who have intimate on-the-ground knowledge of these conditions and is prepared for a long-term process.
Support for long-term water restoration projects began in 2020 with P&G funding eight projects in California's Sacramento River basin. Through these projects, P&G is supporting the revitalization of wetlands, restoration of damaged wildlife habitats, meadows and streamflow, and even the reduction of water needed to maintain urban landscapes. In Arizona’s Lower Salt Basin, P&G has supported a project that will reduce water lost in a leaky irrigation ditch to help aquatic habitats and farms. Combined, these projects are expected to restore billions of liters of water to people and nature each year by 2030. They also benefit surrounding communities by reducing the risk of floods and wildfires and improving habitat for local wildlife.
Along with other organizations, P&G also supports the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) System Conservation Project, which secures 185 billion liters of water for a water-stressed region of the country. This project contributes essential community needs and facilitates the CRIT’s efforts to modernize irrigation systems and conserve additional water.
Efforts continue to expand with support for six new projects throughout the Bear River basin in Utah and Idaho. And In the coming years, they plan to work with new and existing partners on additional long-term water restoration projects in other priority water-stressed areas around the world, including China, India, Italy, Mexico, Spain, and Turkey.
As with conservation efforts in manufacturing plants, this is a difficult, piecemeal process, and it reflects that the path to a water-positive future is made up of a lot of tiny steps which improve, manage and protect water resources. These steps may not save huge amounts of water by themselves but can add up to billions of liters of water restored each year.
Responding to water challenges with innovation and partnership
When we talk about the future of water, we need to think not just about these types of industrial water efficiency efforts and local water restoration projects, but also about how everyday people interact with water, and what their role in a water-positive future could look like.
For instance, right now the average American family uses 300 gallons of water every day, according to the EPA. That represents not just a lot of potential wasted water, but a sizable amount of carbon emissions—it requires energy to transport, treat, and heat water. The 50 Liter Home Coalition is an organization seeking to bring down the water usage in urban areas, and P&G is a founding member of that collection of civic, governmental, and business entities. The end goal is to get homes that use 500 liters of water a day to run on 50 liters while not sacrificing comfort or convenience.
P&G also provides consumers with a wide range of options to help reach that goal. Cascade’s push to get people to run the dishwasher more frequently rather than hand-washing dishes seems counterintuitive, but cleaning plates and bowls by hand uses significantly more water than dishwashers*. Another P&G product, the Swiffer Wet Jet, saves 70 gallons of water per year versus a traditional mop and bucket.
That adds up—if there’s less water going into making these products, and the products themselves help conserve water, the water footprint of P&G and the water footprints of their customers shrinks at the same time. This is especially important in water-stressed areas, and with water stress spreading across the world, these efforts are going to become a critical tool in fighting back.
Through the Children’s Safe Drinking Water Program, P&G provides water purification packets. These are small sachets of powder that when used properly can turn brown, unsafe water into clear and drinkable water within half an hour, killing bacteria and removing other harmful microorganisms. This process was discovered by P&G scientists who were trying to separate dirt out of used laundry water, but today it’s used throughout the developing world to provide people with access to clean drinking water.
As we fight the global water crisis on multiple fronts, it’s imperative that we all do our part, from governments to NGOs to multinational corporations down to the individual consumer. We all have to think critically about water and work toward a water-positive future. There’s only so much water on the planet, and it’s up to all of us to be good stewards of that water, to treat it as the precious resource it is—even if we take it for granted far too often.
*By pairing Cascade Platinum with ENERGY STAR certified dishwashers that use less than 4 gallons of water per cycle, households can save up to 140 gallons of water per week.