The eco crises of the 1980s lit a touchpaper which led eventually to net zero carbon. Will the new corporate movement on water positivity finally inspire the transboundary collaboration water so desperately needs?

BACK in the 1980s we were too worried about acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer to consider that one day our country might run out of water.

But these two seminal events, and the responses they provoked, might be when the seeds of the solution to our current water scarcity problem were planted.

Let me explain. Acid rain was a huge problem for Europe and the US in the 70s and 80s. Caused by emissions from burning fossil fuels, it degraded forests and rivers, killed fish and corroded buildings. It is only thanks to countries enacting clean air legislation that we rarely hear about it today.

No sooner had the situation started to improve, when another potential global disaster unfolded. One that no country could deal with alone. Scientists found that chemicals in products like spray deodorants had punctured the Earth’s protective ozone layer over Antarctica. The resulting public outcry led to world’s first-ever global treaty to reduce pollution, the Montreal Protocol.

Birth of net zero

Then, a really interesting thing happened. In 1989, energy firm AES voluntarily created the first documented carbon offset program.

By planting 52 million trees in Guatemala to compensate for a new coal-fired power plant in Connecticut, the scheme pre-dated the emissions trading arrangements set out in the UN’s Kyoto Protocol by eight years, and was the first recognisable ‘net zero’ commitment.

Why are these things significant for water scarcity today? It is because they show that we we don’t need a pandemic to act at an individual, corporate, state and global level when the need arises.

The water crisis needs this level of action now. Global accords, legislation, community action and corporate-financed innovation and adoption are exactly the tools we need to adapt to what is now unavoidable change to our natural water systems. The good news is that while some of our policy makers are failing us on the speed of global collective action necessary others certainly are not. At a national level, places like India and Egypt are adopting a ‘one water’ approach employing new digital and data technologies to weather their rapidly encroaching storms. I am also encouraged by the passion shown by political leaders in the US, particularly California where Governor Gavin Newsom is building a team of all the talents to adapt smarter and faster to a drier future.

A global mission for water

Now we need to join these dots into a global mission. Water underpins every one of the UN’s sustainable development goals and, as Egypt’s situation with Ethiopia’s GERD dam shows, it is not confined to borders. That means developing transboundary strategies that at the very least match the drive to limit global warming to 1.5C.

This is where corporations and communities could be pivotal. Corporations don’t have the same limitations as governments. They can act transnationally, take risks and finance innovative agile strategies. Just as AES did in Guatemala, they are showing how this might be done with the water positivity movement.

Water positivity is not just net zero, it’s net positive.

Water positive organisations pledge to to make more water available to communities than they use in their operations. This means being more water efficient; using only sustainable sources; returning water to communities after use; and, funding or delivering programmes to replenish water in stressed communities or basins.

Water positivity goes further than neutral

Some are already building terrific expert teams, pulling in cross-sector expertise with pledges to be water positive by 2030. They’re harnessing data, collaborating, inventing new processes and adopting and proving new non-proprietary technologies at scale.

Of course, this move is not entirely selfless. Investment competition for water rights is increasing so there are economic and environmental advantages too. But they have learned from the long road to net zero and are avoiding the mistakes made by early carbon market pioneers.

Water positivity takes all the good points of carbon offsetting but it is potentially easier to measure. Hence the emphasis on potable water use reduction first and foremost. This is not greenwashing. The actions are real and provable.

In this year of the UN’s conference to mark the halfway point of its Water Action Decade, this is what we need. Unlike politicians, corporations can move fast, act for the long term and take risks. But make no mistake, their ground-breaking actions will be the state policy of the future.

Community agency’s next

Which leads me to the other currently untapped seam – communities. In 1987 when Ronald Reagan tried to dismiss the ozone problem by telling Americans to wear hats, the public were having none of it.

We need to galvanise the same sense of urgency. Water is fundamental to life yet the people worst affected do not have a seat at the top table.

Once corporations have proved the solution with a commercial model that removes the threat of failure, we must harness people with a narrative which makes this invisible problem visible. Get them to put pressure on their elected representatives.

We need the desire to change; not advice on headwear.

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