The Cost of Water

How do you imagine a world of the future without water issues?

For many of us living in the developed world, in Switzerland or elsewhere, the first question that might come to mind is: What issues?

Sure, we might read about a dry spell in a newspaper, but most of us are oblivious to the extent and consequences of poor management of water resources, often created by unscrupulous businesses exploiting resources, beyond the occasional spike in our grocery bill.

To really understand the situation, we need to know more about it. And once we know more about it, we need to “back cast” from our image of a world without water issues to take steps today to enable this future to become a reality.

This idea led to a “collaborator” – a conference on water sustainability in the luxury industries that was organized in cooperation by Business School Lausanne (BSL) and Waterlex. An expert panel comprised of representatives from these two institutions as well as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne (EHL). In attendance were enlightened students, stakeholders and conscious citizens.

The experts made some very pertinent and revealing points. One was that businesses want to continually grow, but the increased revenues they generate often leak out of the local economies (as profits or to import luxury goods in far flung holiday destinations) and the benefits to local populations are marginal.

Another was the startling fact that 90% of waste water goes untreated, but because water has traditionally not been on the global agenda (unlike CO2 emissions), there hasn’t been an effort to establish a “water footprint”, which could reveal more information about the goods we purchase.

How can we find a way to act responsibly while continuing to capture business opportunities in the market?

A very interesting discussion revealed how in the luxury industry, provision of goods and services is often reliant on the use of precarious water resources for everything from tanning hides to feeding cattle to refreshing hotel linens to cleaning shipping containers.

What’s more, it is the people in developing countries’ communities where “cheap” luxury attracts tourists from around the world, who suffer when their water resources are used irresponsibly by hotels or new industries that have an exit strategy, a luxury the locals do not enjoy when the land goes dry.

Participants were then taken on an envisioning process, imagining that these problems had been solved and trying to give words to the emotions this elicits, and sharing these with others. There was a wealth of ideas and opinions when we were next asked to think of prototypes that could be employed to address the issue of cost, quality and availability of water, and we then grouped together to build on our ideas as a group and share them with everyone else.

Water is a human right, and it only takes 50 litres per person per day to fulfill this essential need. And yet, today, for billions around the world access to clean, safe drinking water and sanitation is a luxury.

And clearly there isn’t one, single, unified way to address this – everything from encouraging ownership and community spirit in managing resources to incentivizing organizations to be more responsible through financial rewards to raising awareness among young people to treating water sources as a meeting place was put up for consideration by the conference participants.

What was clear at the end of the day was that we need to change our thought process. Building factories further away from towns or building wells closer to villages doesn’t address the problem. Effluents will still enter rivers and destroy biodiversity, water tables will continue to fall leading to the need for deeper wells and violence against women will continue to fracture social cohesion.

Indeed, taking shorter showers in Switzerland won’t prevent a child in Sub Saharan Africa from dying from Malaria. But the next time you do have a drink of alpine mineral water, give a thought to the farmers with arid fields, the children who can only bathe once a week and the women who must walk miles each day to fetch water that could kill their families.

Author: Unmukt Goel, Master in International Business, class of 2014-2015unmukt

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