Water: The looming crisis

According to a report from the 2030 Water Resources Group, by 2030 global demand for water will be 40% more than current supplies can meet

The report states: "Across the globe, policy makers, civil society and the business sector are increasingly becoming aware of the challenges facing global water resources, and the need to carefully manage these resources. Progress has been limited, however, and overall too slow."

The looming water crisis, believe the experts, is the result of a growing global population and expanding economies placing bigger demands on already depleted water supplies.

Agricultural run-off and other forms of pollution are exacerbating the problem by making the supply of clean water even scarcer in some regions. Climate change is also contributing to the problem with more unpredictable and pronounced weather patterns leading to flooding and contamination of water supplies without sufficiently replenishing groundwater stocks.

Unfortunately, quantifying the size of the water crisis is not straightforward. Calculations around carbon dioxide and its contribution to climate change are complex and controversial, and the myriad interactions between usage, production and resources surrounding water can seem equally convoluted. "The world's water crisis is not related to the physical availability of water, but to unbalanced power relations, poverty and related inequalities," the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) concluded in its Human Development Report 2006.

As a result of these complex interactions, establishing exactly how much the hotel industry is contributing to the water crisis is not easy to measure and is very dependent on geography, experts claim. While the hospitality industry is certainly not in the same league as food production when it comes to water usage, there is still a pressing need for the industry to take action.

That is the view of Jan Peter Bergkvist, sustainable business advisor at SleepWell and formerly with Hilton International and Scandic Hotels.

"It is crucial for hoteliers all over the globe to have a systematic and holistic approach to sustainable water management," he says. "Not only for philanthropic reasons but because it is always smart as a business to be part of the solution to the non-sustainable reality of today's society." It is clear that some hotel groups have woken up to the water crisis and its potential impact on their businesses.

Hilton Hotels, for example has pledged to cut its water usage by 10% by 2014 and also claims that its We Care! programme has resulted in savings of more than US$9m since it began in 2005.

"DEMAND FOR ENERGY AND FOOD CONTINUES TO GROW AND FRESH WATER SCARCITY IS BECOMING A REALITY. HOW WE RESPOND TO THESE CHALLENGES IN MEANINGFUL WAYS WILL DETERMINE THE SUSTAINABILITY OF OUR FUTURE LIFESTYLES, OUR COMMUNITIES AS WE KNOW THEM AND ULTIMATELY THE SUSTAINABILITY OF OUR PLANET."

CHRISTOPHER NASSETTA, PRESIDENT AND CHIEF EXECUTIVE, HILTON HOTELS CORPORATION

(Read the profile of Christopher Nassetta, president and CEO, Hilton Hotels Corporation).

Spanish group NH Hoteles has gone even further, having pledged to cut its water usage by 20% between 2008 and 2012."Educating our 20,000 staff has been a key factor in our sustainable approach," says Gabriele Burgio, chairman and chief executive , NH Hoteles. "We have shown them how to intelligently use resources such as electricity and water; we also encourage them to think about their usage at home" (Read the profile of Gabriele Burgio, chairman and CEO, NH Hoteles).

While commitments and motivating staff are all well and good, what are the practical measures that hotels can take to tackle the water crisis? Last year, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) launched Green Engage, an online tool to help its hotels manage their output levels and reduce energy consumption.
"Hotels can use green engage to measure their water, waste and carbon emissions and give us a common framework for comparison between properties in the future," explains David Jerome, Senior Vice-President of Corporate Social Responsibility, IHG. "It provides guidance on elements ranging from insulating the hotel's hot water pipes… to appointing a green champion to monitor energy and water consumption."

According to Anders Berntell, executive director, Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), when it comes to following the lead of other industries in water conservation, food production is the sector to watch. He cites such companies as Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Coors and Miller. "Coca-Cola, for example, does not transport water across borders, " he says. "It produces its coke in the country it is selling it in." However, the reason for such action is not pure altruism but partly due to financial and strict legislative pressure, given the sheer amount of water consumed by the food and drinks industry.

Food is the most water-consuming activity and 70% of the water extracted for any purpose, including industrial and household, is used in food production. Some of the direct response of the food industry to a looming water crisis includes funding research — such as the McKinsey & Co's 2030 Water Resources Group report — as well as investing in water-conserving techniques and technology.

Nestlé, for example, claims to have more than doubled its food production since 1997, but cut water consumption by 29% by "improving efficiency". The McKinsey & Co report warns that companies must learn to do more with less water but says this can also bring opportunities. "Closing the gap between supply and demand by deploying water productivity improvements across regions and sectors around the world could cost, by our estimate, about $50bn to $60bn annually over the next two decades.

Private sector companies will account for about half of this spending, government for the rest. Many of these investments yield positive returns in just three years." The first step to improving water efficiency for any organisation should be to calculate its water footprint.

Just as companies are encouraged to quantify their carbon footprint, similar frameworks exist for water usage with the long-term goal for institutions to become "water neutral". "What I think should be required of any hotel is that they are aware of the water footprint and I don't think that many hotels around the world have done that," says SIWI's Berntell. "It includes the hidden water that you don't see. If you have cotton towels, for instance, that cotton has grown somewhere and produced a lot of water. That also applies to the food that you serve in hotel restaurants."

While many in the hospitality industry might not agree with Berntell's assessment of its water-saving efforts so far, it is hard to fault his credentials or that of SIWI, recognised as one of the leading organisations in the field of water scarcity management. Established in 1997, the institute is responsible for running World Water Week in Stockholm, which regularly attracts more than 2,000 participants from 140 countries.

Such popularity is testament to the global concern about the escalating issue of water shortage. As is the amount of attention it has received in the media, with National Geographic dedicating its entire March 2010 issue to water and the UK's Financial Times (FT) publishing a special report on water management on 26 January 2010. The FT quoted a Green Hotelier article which imagined hotels having to tell their guests that they can only shower every other day, that supplies of bottled water had become hard to obtain and that it was impossible to provide clean laundry.

Another leading authority in this area is the Water Footprint Network.It provides advice on which models and frameworks organisations should adopt. "Water problems are often closely tied to the structure of the global economy," states Professor Arjen Y Hoekstra, creator of the water footprint concept and scientific director of the Water Footprint Network. "Not only governments, but also consumers, businesses and civil society communities can play a role in achieving a better management of water resources."

Although the water scarcity issue will have some financial impact for hotels in terms of increasing water costs, Berntell believes the real threat is related to perception and reputation: "Local, regional or national authorities may think that these hotels are wasting water which maybe the country should use for other purposes. Or you might get some kind of reaction among the local population as they see hotels spraying water on golf courses when the water is perceived as needed for survival."

The water crisis will inevitably escalate in those areas that have a history of scarcity and those with growing populations, such as Africa, the Middle East and parts of Southern Asia. Many countries have already begun to address the issue. In Mali, they have created hundreds of communal councils to share the responsibility of water management, while the Ugandan government is modernising agriculture to mitigate the effects of climate change on rain-fed agriculture and involving stakeholders in the planning and implementation of water projects.

In the developed world, countries are building desalination plants to turn saltwater into freshwater while others, including Cyprus and the Bahamas, are importing bulk water. Hotel chains operating in areas of water scarcity are already taking measures to act more sustainably.

The Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley Resort in Australia has responded to the country's ongoing drought through active measures such as installing an in-house ozone-based laundry system which reduces water consumption as well as the energy and chemicals used. Other measures include having over 80% indigenous plants in its gardens, which are better equipped for local conditions. The hotel also uses grey or waste water to irrigate its grounds.

Sensitivity to local issues is of course vitally important. Yet experts believe that the hospitality industry globally can play a fundamental part in not only improving its own response to the water crisis but also in working collaboratively to raise awareness among its guests and even engender a spirit of community.

"Research shows the ‘We care about the environment, please leave towels in the sink etc' messages simply don't work," says Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of sustainability marketing company Futerra. "Far more effective are messages such as ‘Our guests care about the environment.

Over the past year, guests in this room have taken care to turn taps off and have hung their towels to be reused rather than replaced. We thank them and you for your efforts to make this room both comfortable and green'." In other words, messaging that is personal, inclusive and positive is likely to be the most effective. While it is clear that the hospitality sector is not as significant a contributor to the looming water crisis as some other industries, hoteliers are well placed to have a disproportionate impact on tackling the issue.

Exposing guests to examples of efficient water management during their stay not only makes good financial and environmental sense for the industry but can have practical educational value that few other institutions have the ability to impart. Leading by example will help to educate guests who will hopefully pass the message on to others that water really is the stuff of life and we cannot afford to waste either.

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