What do water risks, Twitter and Justin Bieber have in common?
Other than being mentioned together in the title of this blog post, what these things have in common is that their popularity on the internet has risen sharply in the past few years. A quick Google trends search shows that prior to 2007, these terms were practically non-existent in the lexicon of internet searches – people simply weren’t talking about them. Fast forward to today and we have a different story altogether. Who hasn’t heard of Twitter, the Biebs and water risks? Ok, maybe water risks still have a way to go to reach Bieber heights, but given its growing relevance I’d wager that we’ll be talking about water risks long after the latest teen heartthrob has retired his dancing shoes.
So why are people beginning to talk about water risks and why will this topic become increasingly important and tweeted in years to come? To put it bluntly, it has a lot to do with money – and water has an all-too-often ignored economic dimension. Water is an irreplaceable input to practically all forms of economic activity, and when it’s not available in sufficient quantity and quality, financial losses can accrue. We’re seeing this situation more and more, and people in the business of making money are starting to take notice. In the last few months, influential financial heavyweights including the likes of Bloomberg and Forbes published articles on water risks. There’s growing recognition that due to various stressors impacting the health of freshwater ecosystems, we can no longer take it for granted that water will be available tomorrow as it has been in the past.
(c) Garth Lenz / WWF-Canada
Recognizing that helping companies understand water risks is a critical first step toward them taking action on water stewardship, WWF developed the Water Risk Filter. I wrote about this tool in an earlier blog post, but I bring it up again here because its rapid uptake is a testament to the fact that water risks are in fact a real and rising concern in the private sector. In just four weeks since the tool was launched from WWF’s international headquarters in Gland, Switzerland, Water Risk Filter assessments were conducted for over 20,000 facilities covering all of the world’s major river basins, and the website has attracted over 10,000 unique visitors from 89 countries.
In Canada, it’s easy to be complacent about water risks – after all, we have one of the largest renewable supplies of fresh water on earth. But water risks are complex, and the total amount of water a country has within its borders is not a reliable indicator. Water risks come in many forms (droughts, floods, pollution, increasing competition, reputational and regulatory risks, climate change, ecosystem degradation, etc.) which can hit at different times in different parts of the country. A fundamental challenge companies – and citizens – face in understanding water risks in Canada is a lack of information on the status of our waters – or at least a lack of access to that information in a useable form. Given recent and ongoing cuts to both federal and provincial agencies responsible for water science and the laws that underpin them, we may not be able to count exclusively on governments to gather and make available this information in the future.
This is why tools like the Water Risk Filter and events like the one held last week at the University of Toronto’s Munk School to bring attention to it are all the more important. Seems odd that WWF – a not-for-profit organization – developed a free tool that helps the for-profit sector identify and mitigate risk? Well it shouldn’t – and if it does, soon it won’t. Companies and conservationists are recognizing that water risk, while we may see it through different lenses, is a shared risk; and that we have an opportunity to work together to lead the transition to a sustainable water future. So, while water risks may not be on the same level as the Biebs when it comes to household popularity, I predict we’ll be hearing a lot more about this issue in the foreseeable future.