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By Stephen Gardner. Singapore is a miracle. The tiny republic manages to cram 5.4 million people onto an area not much larger than the Isle of Man.

 

Its neighbours are mainly poorer countries, but it is one of the world's richest. And amazingly, it manages to stay rich while almost entirely lacking one of the basic necessities for any society: water.

Singapore is the fourth most water-stressed country in the world, according to rankings and maps published in December by Aqueduct, a project of the World Resources Institute (WRI). Singapore survives because it meets 20 percent of its water needs through captured rainwater, desalinates sea water to produce 10 percent, and recycles grey water for another 30 percent. The remaining 40 percent is imported from Malaysia.

Paul Reig, a WRI associate working on Aqueduct says that Singapore “is known as an excellent water manager.” But globally, water stress is on the rise as demand outstrips supply, as agricultural and energy-related water consumption increases to keep pace with the rising population, and as water resources become harder to manage because of changing environmental conditions. If they are to cope, countries and companies will increasingly have to think like Singapore.

The Aqueduct rankings claim to be the first to show water stress by country, and also break down risk by river basin. “Extreme” stress is felt by a swathe of arid countries and territories from the Western Sahara through North Africa and the Middle East to Pakistan. But “high” stress is also evident in a number of wealthy countries, including Australia, Belgium, Italy and Japan.

Many more countries, including the United Kingdom, face medium to high stress. It's not just a question of shortages. Economies can also be damaged by too much water – extreme rainfall and floods.

The response, says Reig, should be planning and cooperation. “Governments should invest in water-saving technologies and responsible management while pursuing international agreements.”

Companies, meanwhile, should assess the risks they face, and invest accordingly. They can “pursue partnerships with other water users, including surrounding businesses, cities and farms,” and should bear in mind that “very water-intensive companies are being held responsible for the state of water resources and access to sanitation in communities they operate in,” Reig adds.

Bernard Guirkinger, senior executive vice president of French utility Suez and member of the board of governors of think tank the World Water Council, says that, if anything, companies are more alert than governments to water risk. Water-intensive sectors such as mining and food are “all preoccupied and working on the issue already.” But “the political commitment to water is insufficient,” with all levels of government falling short – something with which recent flood victims in Britain might agree.

The basic aim for companies should be to cut consumption, Guirkinger says. Firms should employ all the tools in their armoury: fixing leaks, reusing and recycling, introducing smart metering. Companies that have not yet done so should also factor water into their sustainability plans. Water is particularly crucial for assessing supply chain risk, especially in the most water-stressed countries. The Aqueduct mapping tool provides a good starting point for analysing the constraints.

A version of this article was published in Ethical Corporation on 3 February 2014.

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