What does water consumption have to do with Business Resilience?

Water, water, everywhere ………but no, actually there’s ne’er a drop to drink

(to paraphrase Samuel Taylor Coleridge slightly, with apologies to the great man)


The briefest of internet searches reveals that human beings can live for 3 -5 days without water.  (Although in this situation we wouldn’t be much use on days 3 and 4). And the world’s supply of water is shrinking very fast indeed, whilst conversely, demand is rising almost equally rapidly.  We are in the process of leaving ourselves High and Dry On a Saturday Night (Def Leppard). Here are a few of the statistics:

  • By 2050 world demand for water is scheduled to increase by 20 – 30% to an annual consumption of 5 trillion cubic meters per year.

  • The world’s glaciers (which provide the bulk of water to the Alps, the Andes, and Central Asia) are disappearing very fast.  Their surface area has halved since 1920, with a whopping 70% of this reduction in the last 30 years.

  • During the few years whilst the glaciers melt the rivers will be deceptively full but will then run dry – permanently.

  • Groundwater extraction is already unsustainable, with aquifers, some of which took thousands of years to fill, being emptied faster than they can replenish themselves.  The Billy Joels of the future may well write songs called The Dry Gulch of Nightmares rather than The River of Dreams because they will have no idea what a river looks like.

The disappearing glacier. Okjokull, Iceland

The disappearing glacier. Okjokull, Iceland

  • 80% of industrial and urban waste-water is currently released into the environment without treatment.  This causes contamination from substances such as nitrates and phosphates which are toxic, hard to treat, and persist for decades.

It is the speed of these changes which is terrifying – we as homo sapiens are managing to change the course of geology within the span of a human lifetime, and we are without a doubt Causing a Catastrophe (Flickerstick).  And imagine the day The Rivers Run Dry (Vince Hill) – the humans who rely on that water will have 5 days left on the planet. Long before that, of course, we will have seen mass population movement on an unprecedented scale as millions of people search for somewhere to live where there is Enough to Drink (Jay Einhorn).  And mass population movement with a desperate competition for scarce resources always ends well, doesn’t it?

What can we do to prevent catastrophic effects on the environment?


  • Actively refilling those precious aquifers.  The Potomac Aquifer Project aims to pump 8 million gallons of waste-water per day, treated to drinkable standard, back into their aquifer instead of jettisoning it into rivers.  Good on them.

  • Horizon scanning early and making the big and hard decisions that will give populations enough water to survive.  5 days is not enough to make a plan.

  • Revolutionising the thirsty industries, so that they release as much clean water back into the earth as they use for manufacturing.  We are compelling societies to become carbon neutral, but H20 neutral is arguably far more urgent.

  • Restoring wetland habitats (natural storage).

  • Changing behaviours – at home, at the workplace and during leisure-time.


  • Building dams for power which destroy wetlands, subsistence fishing industries, pastoral grazing and wet-soil arable farming.  Without supra-national governance, and treaties in place, these dams are more likely to become sources of conflict than cooperation. (There are currently plans to dam the Amu Darya, Mekong, Nile and Tigris-Euphrates rivers, with no treaties in place – so Boney M fans will no longer be able to dream of sitting down by The Rivers of Babylon).

  • Releasing untreated waste-water into the environment.

  • Pretending that it’s OK to lose millions of gallons of water per day through leaky pipes.  Leakage currently ranges from 44% in Mexico City (where there is an acute water scarcity problem), to 4% in Amsterdam. In the United Kingdom (UK), total leakage in England and Wales is over 20%.

  • Explore all avenues for investment, including nationalisation as an option if business response is too slow, whatever it takes to get this ageing infrastructure upgraded.

There are ways that it can be done:

  • Advances in technology such as graphene-based membranes can produce more clean water from salt and brackish water than we do currently.

  • Smart metering and pricing should encourage people to use less water.

  • Better designs will allow buildings to capture rainwater and re-use it.

  • Filtration and Reverse Osmosis are improving.

To put this into a Business Resilience context, think about it this way:

  • 30 years (until 2050) is a very short time for any business.

  • Water is a critical supply for any business, and for the high volume industrial and agricultural users it’s a show-stopper.

  • In this very short time, this very important commodity will run out.

  • Disrupted water-supply will lead very rapidly to the denial of people, the other thing that businesses cannot do without.

As a business, get on top of your water data and do it soon:

  • Work out how much you use, where you get it from, whether or not it is likely to run out, and how environmentally responsible you are with it.

  • Assume that your water will reduce or run out within the next 30 years, and take the requisite steps to avoid the catastrophe at your own level.  Change your habits, change your buildings, and put back into the earth the same as you took out of it.

And in the future, if we hum Have You Ever Seen the Rain (Credence Clearwater Revival – what an apposite name and song title eh?) to our children and they reply “No Dad, We’ve Never Seen the Rain” then the human race will indeed have had its Soul Sucked Dry (Beck Hansen).  And we will have done it to ourselves.

Sorry to be gloomy, but when the last rivers have run dry, you can’t drink the money…….



Toby Ingram, OBE

Senior Consultant,
Sector Lead: Academia & Heritage


Benton, T., et al., (2017), Food and water systems and security: looking to the future, a research paper commissioned by DCDC

Scottish Water is publicly owned, and has reduced leakage from 1104 million litres per day (Ml/D) to 480 Ml/D  https://www.scottishwater.co.uk/en/Your-Home/Your-Water/Leakage.  That’s still a lot, and far too much, but they are improving.


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