Water: the Basics

Water is our most vital resource, it sustains all life and so all businesses on earth. The Earth’s water exists in a closed loop system called the water cycle. So what are the sustainability concerns regarding water if it’s not going anywhere? The first thing we need to understand is supply and demand. 

The Water Cycle and Climate Change

The water cycle is the natural process of evaporation from land and oceans, leading to precipitation (rain, snow, sleet etc.), then surface runoff to rivers, streams and lakes, and rivers that flow to the ocean. This all happens according to complex meteorological factors and we can’t control where or when the rain falls. Climate models show that over the next century wet areas may become wetter and dry areas drier. On top of that, of all the water on Earth 97% is salt water in oceans, 3% is freshwater, of which 2% is in glaciers and snowcaps, leaving only 1% available to us. 

Increasing populations, industrialisation, urbanisation and globalised commerce means growing pressure on the water system. Water stress describes our demand for water versus the natural supply. Water stress affects different parts of the world disproportionately, for example in Kuwait, their use is 3814% of freshwater supply meaning huge expense in desalinating sea water. The International Food Policy Research Institute predicts that by 2030 water supplies will satisfy only 60% of global demand on average. All this means that we urgently need to learn to better understand and manage our water use and practice good water stewardship. 

Commercial Risks of Water Disruption

When we look at all this water use from an industrial or business perspective it is obvious that good water management is essential. There are commercial risks of doing nothing.

  • Physical risk to water means disruption in supply or reduced water quality which could impact your production or product quality. 
  • Reputational risk conveys the importance of wider public or community opinion about a business’ use of water. 
  • Regulatory risk is the implication of future water quotas, wastewater discharge quality standards or aligning with new water strategies. 
  • Financial risk is the potential of increase in water tariffs and impact on investors or insurers.

Water Treatment

 Although water is a simple natural resource a lot has to be done to make it safe for consumption. Water treatment is a huge and complex operation, in Ireland alone there are over 1,000 water treatment plants. Globally only 74% of the population has access to the safely managed drinking water systems that we take for granted. 


While our main concern may be the water coming out of the tap, wastewater needs to be treated too in order to protect the environment. Globally 56% of wastewater is treated before it is discharged into the environment, in Europe it is 80%, but in Sub-Saharan Africa only 28% is treated. Wastewater treatment protects fresh water systems and prevents pathogens, nutrients and other pollution entering the environment. It’s still not a perfect system though, as most treatment aims to remove 90% of pollutants, meaning 10% is discharged into the environment. With increasingly interconnected global supply chains much of the water we use and its knock-on effects actually occur in far-reaching regions of the world. 

Water footprint

A water footprint is the amount of water used by an individual or entity and includes both direct and indirect use. It’s similar to the concept of a carbon footprint.

Direct usage

Direct water usage is from within your operational boundaries, which could be in manufacturing, processing, or in an office setting all the water used by toilets, urinals, washing, cleaning and so on. Your business’s direct water footprint is the water it draws from the mains, meaning it is the easiest to account for. It might surprise you to find out that the average office uses 63% of its water just for flushing toilets and urinals. 

Indirect usage

Indirect water usage is any water that is used in your supply chain, through products or services you buy, and this can be much harder to quantify. For some products you may be able to find information about water usage through research online. For example, did you know that the average cup of coffee takes 134 litres of water to produce, but a cup of tea only requires 28 litres? The typical smartphone takes a whopping 12,760 litres of water to manufacture, between mining the raw materials, processing, manufacturing, assembly and packaging. This is something to think about before upgrading the company mobile phones. 

We are lucky in Europe to have a well managed and safe water network. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world this is not the case. The manufacture of products elsewhere in the world causes significant pollution issues in raw material processing and wastewater contamination. These can have a hugely detrimental impact on environment and biodiversity, not to mention wider health, social and climate implications. 

Indirect water usage is much harder to tackle because of the complexity of supply chains but there are still many ways to have an impact through your business procurement decisions. For example, choosing recycled paper uses 47% less water than virgin fibre paper as well as saving precious resources. Choosing refurbished electronics would be a great way to reduce your business’s water, environmental and carbon footprint too.

It might seem overwhelming when you start considering all the complicated ways in which your business’s water use affects the environment. Our Where to Start? page has plenty of water saving tips to get your business sustainability strategy started..