What is water mapping?

What is water mapping? article image

watermapWater mapping is the latest eco trend sweeping the globe, with many businesses now tracking their water usage and taking steps to reduce their ‘water footprint.’ Whether you put it down to climate change, water mismanagement or simply the growing needs of a more populated world, there is no doubt that water is one of our most critical resources-and it’s under stress. Australians are perhaps more acutely aware of this than any other developed economy. The Murray-Darling no longer flows to meet the sea; we live with water restrictions as a daily part of life; we have desalination plants popping up around the country; and we also live with extremes of droughts, floods and other unusual water patterns. Australia, unlike many countries, price and meter water, so there is a clear economic cost to its use. Yet we don’t label products by their water efficiency, and businesses don’t routinely map out the water used during their production process to lower usage rates. Water mapping is the idea of mapping the world’s fresh water resources to identify where the resources are concentrated. Water ‘stress’ comes when water use in geographic areas outstrips supply and fresh water resources deteriorate. In a business sense, these water maps could be used to guide business decisions about where to put operations. A report in The Economistrecently estimated that Nestlé, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and Danone consume almost 575 billion litres of water a year, enough to satisfy the daily water needs of every person on the planet. If water was a key influence in their investment decisions, which it could well be in 10-15 years, then a multinational like Unilever might think twice about locating to Australia, for example. This scenario is already not too far from the truth. SABMiller have operations in Tasmania because of a ready supply of fresh water. A drought made operations vulnerable to rising costs on two levels: fresh water for production processes became more expensive, as did their energy bills because a reliance on hydroelectric power meant they had to source energy from the mainland during the drought. This energy came from coal-fired plants, meaning that while input costs were rising, so was their carbon footprint, with the potential of upsetting their consumer base. While simplistic at present, it’s not unimaginable to think about a time when Australian jobs and our economic wealth could be threatened by investment and/or supply decisions being made around the issue of water. The emergence of the organisational water map, and a possible water footprint label are both fairly recent developments that have emerged from the increasing focus on water issues. An organisational water map, simply tracks the amount of water used at each step of the supply chain, from paddock to plate, and plate to waste. A water footprint is the sum total of this map, and refers to the amount of fresh water a business needs to produce and distribute its goods and services.

Liquid asset

The European Union is home to some of the most aggressive policy, business and consumer action on climate change issues. Terms like ‘water mapping’ and ‘water footprints’ are commonplace, as are discussions around whether businesses should relocate their plants and manufacturing operations away from water-stressed locations and/or whether they should only source from suppliers demonstrating good ‘water ethics’. In the UK, water mapping and water footprints may be the next big ethical marketing issue facing businesses looking to target the increasingly savvy UK consumer. While the potential application of a water footprint label is still under discussion, we are already seeing other ways that water mapping affects business decisions in the UK. Leading UK retailer Marks & Spencer has a public target to reduce their potable water usage by 20 percent by 2012. They have already introduced a range of water saving features in their operations, including percussion taps, use of rainwater and waterless urinals. They are also working with environmental organisation WWF and key parts of their supply chain to improve the efficiency of water use during production of the raw materials and products that go into M&S products. The logic is sound. If it takes about 2,000 litres to make one cotton T-shirt, anything M&S does at their stores to reduce water consumption is really a drop in the ocean. If however, they can work with their supply chain partners to decrease fresh water usage by cotton farmers, then their impact is significant. Pepsico is a multinational publicly committed to working with their supply chain partners to reduce water consumption. They have even issued guidelines to all their suppliers and agricultural growers about how they can reduce their water footprint. For Australian exporters of water-intensive products/services such as tourism, hospitality, food and beverage, textile, pulp and paper, mining, minerals, steel-based products, this focus on the supply chain’s water use is an early warning flag. The trend isn’t going away, in fact the push to reduce water use within the supply chain is getting increasingly more vigorous in the UK, often in conjunction with a push to achieve a lower carbon footprint.

The UK is in recession and businesses need to reduce costs. One of the fastest ways to reduce your costs is to save on energy, water and waste. Saving on water, energy and waste also has the added benefit of providing additional ethical appeal to customers. The environmental agenda in the UK has been given a strong push by the recession, led this time by business, not the consumer. For Australian exporters, the continued and growing focus on water, carbon and waste in investment, supply and consumer decisions means we have to promote our capabilities as a water smart nation. UNESCO estimates that the average person from a developed country uses 500-800 litres of water per day, compared to 60-150 litres per day in a developing country; Queensland newspaper The Courier-Mail reported that South East Queenslanders consumed around 118 litres per day. Clearly Australia has a lot of experience, technology and know-how to offer the world. Obvious areas of export and investment potential include irrigation, urban rainwater harvesting, grey water management and water reuse (including industrial applications), waste water treatment, total water cycle management, water sensitive urban design, environmental biotechnology, and the provision of water services for desert communities, to name a few.

Water marketing

Australia's position as a nation with strong water management practices could be a key selling point for other Australian businesses looking to sell into the UK and beyond. Australia companies, regardless of product or service, should think about some of the following points when marketing:

  • Are you aware of your company’s water (carbon or waste) footprint?
  • Are there economically viable ways you can reduce your footprint without sacrificing quality?
  • Are you working with your own supply chain to understand, record and market their water and other green credentials?
  • Can you measure the before and after impact of any changes you make?

Once you have these questions under control, then build your achievements into your marketing story. Also consider applying for relevant environmental awards that have credibility with your target audience, such as The International Green Apple Environment Award, or consider introducing environmental angles to your traditional in-market promotions. Consider how you might feature a water conservation program or message in your normal program; for example ‘2 cents of every purchase goes to local or international water conservation programs’. Lastly remember, all your claims need to be credible, measurable and defensible as any perception of greenwashing through unsubstantiated claims could endanger your entire business with the buyer. -Kylie Hargreaves is Austrade’s senior trade commissioner for the UK, Ireland & Israel and has extensive experience in complex consumer markets such as the USA.


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