Kaj Embren

More then a drop of water

The problem of water in society goes far beyond rainfall. It is not enough to simply seek shelter under an umbrella. The way that we use water has a profound impact on our planet. It is is inextricably linked to issues such as flooding, conflict over resources, oil extraction in the Arctic, health, food production and the pollution of lakes and seas. The importance of our water usage is exacerbated in the wider context of population growth, urbanization and climate change.

In Sweden, we have always had a good supply of fresh water. The country’s infrastructure has been developed not only to distribute to households but to take responsibility for water quality, wastewater treatment technology and recycling technology for biogas.

When I recently interviewed the CEO of Swedish Water, Lena Söderberg, she told me that that the pipes delivering water to Swedish consumers are long enough to stretch four times around the equator. But the system is not just about effective supply. Local waterworks have been adapted to cope with increasing pollution being produced by industry and society. Sustainable urban development projects would be well advised to look at the technology, experience and expertise of Sweden’s 1750 drinking water plants and 2100 wastewater plants.

The pressures on our water systems will only mount as the world’s urban population rapidly expands. According to the United Nations, the proportion of people living in cities will reach 60 per cent by 2030 and urban planners will need to afford greater consideration to biodiversity. A recent report highlights how green areas in cities can play an important part of ecosystems by absorbing carbon dioxide and improving air quality. Data from Britain shows that a 10 per cent increase of trees in cities can reduce an area’s ambient temperature by 3 to 4 degrees celsius. Clean water in urban lakes and streams can play an important role in this by strengthening biodiversity and aiding the growth of plant life.

This type of public planning has become more common thanks to the development of new urban areas known as ‘Sustainable Cities’ emerging both in Sweden and internationally. These projects usually take a holistic approach to sustainability by coordinating energy production and waste disposal, as well as water treatment and transport. But corporations must also take greater responsibility for water use.

This is something I discussed with the environmental campaigner Anita Roddick in 2004, the year she published her book Trouble Water. She explained to me how The Body Shop (the ethical cosmetics company she founded in 1976) used water responsibly in the creation of its own products and within its supply chains. She was keen to address the important role that influencers in the business community, herself included, hold in encouraging more sustainable water use.

But this issue is not just about the damage that we cause to our water, but the damage that it can cause us.

Global warming is melting polar ice and bringing about flooding and natural disasters in countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, China and Pakistan. Somewhat ironically, many of the aforementioned ‘Sustainable Cities’ are located in coastal areas, only a few feet above sea level, and may become the early victims of the very crisis they seek to avert.

As global warming accelerates icebergs will melt, biodiversity will be threatened and the Gulf Stream will face irreversible change. An increasingly tense power play is also emerging, with nations competing for the spoils that lie beneath the frozen waters around Greenland and the arctic – feedstock oil. But the deeper we drill the greater the chance of spills such as the Gulf of Mexico and the Exxon Valdez disasters.

Although we can be regarded as a small nation in this context, Sweden will chair the Arctic Council until 2013. Why can’t we, with others in Europe, begin to act more forcefully to take action on the affairs of the world’s northernmost region? After all, no one wants to see oil floating spilling into the seas, further damage to deep water biodiversity, changes to the direction of the Gulf Stream or military rearmament in the waters around Greenland.

Water issues affect us all in very different ways depending on where we live and our role in society. What is clear however, is that we all have a responsibility as active citizens to minimize the threat posed to, and by, our planet’s most valuable resource. Will politicians, businesses and other organizations have the insight needed to meet these new challenges?

Kaj Embrén


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