Designing for Water Stewardship

Designing for Water Stewardship



How much water should you budget for using every day on average? That’s something of a trick question because very few of us think about it actively. Many of us take it for granted or at least are unaware of how much water we need to shower, to cook, to drink, to clean and to produce everything we use.  

National figures show that in the UK domestic water usage is around 142 liters per person, while in the United States it’s roughly 333 liters. And beyond that “visible” water that we use there’s a whole lot more “virtual” water that’s sucked up to make products that we all use and consume.  

The food we eat takes an average of 3,496 liters per person per day to produce. Agriculture is a very thirsty business. Depending on the region, it consumes an estimated 75%-90% of available fresh water. But it’s not just household applications, food and drink that use up water. Many everyday products have a surprisingly high ‘water footprint’. A cotton t-shirt needs 2,500 liters and a smartphone takes about 12,760 liters. These are head-spinning figures that most regular individuals are unlikely to be aware of, let alone deliberately factor into how they live their lives. 

Global water demand for all uses is currently around 4,600 km3 a year and is forecast to reach between 5,500 to 6,000 km3 by 2050 according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Yet even as demand continues to increase, the availability of water is decreasing. Groundwater aquifers are getting drained faster than they can replenish. Pollution of usable water is intensifying, and climate change is affecting rainfall. Already severe water shortages are a problem in South Africa, Australia, parts of India and California.   


What is Water Stewardship? 

While individuals may try to do their part to make better use of water, major regulators, processors and users of water resources might be able to make a big difference. It’s organizations that aggregate the water demands of individuals. It’s organizations that have incentives to see the big picture and spot ways in which design thinking can make for better water stewardship.  

Water scarcity is a global issue that needs to be addressed in a multifaceted manner by corporations, institutions, governments and individuals alike. Solutions must come from making more thoughtful and better-designed use of existing water supplies. This way of thinking is called stewardship, defined by the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) as “taking care of something that we do not own”. The AWS International Water Stewardship Standard is designed to promote best practice in terms of five key outcomes: Good water governance, sustainable water balance, good water quality status, important water-related areas, and safe water, sanitation and hygiene for all.


Most industries could not exist without adequate supplies of water. Water is used in manufacturing facilities, agricultural supply chains, and in the production of raw materials and supplies. 

Companies which implement AWS are constantly assessing their water use and water risks in their operations but also across their value chain, and they seek to understand how to use water without negatively impacting the quality or quantity of natural resources—upstream or downstream  

Many urban areas suffer “drought or flooding” problems with water. They struggle for months to meet the freshwater needs of their inhabitants and then along comes heavy rain, and they struggle to deal with stormwater runoff from impervious hard surfaces such as roofs, pavements and roads. Urban designers are now increasingly looking at managing stormwater with so-called Green Infrastructure that combines vegetation (e.g., rain gardens, bioswales) or manufactured materials (e.g., permeable surfaces, rain barrels). Rather than directing stormwater away as fast as possible, with the risks of downstream flooding and pollution, Green Infrastructure design elements aim to slow the water through interception, infiltration, retention, and/or detention. As well as helping in water management, they also aim to provide ecosystem services—broadly defined as “the benefits people derive from ecosystems”. 

To restate the obvious: water, along with food, is one of life’s most fundamental requirements. Whilst individuals can change their lifestyles and play their part in limiting wastage, it’s clear that organizations have a large role to play in ensuring there’s enough water of high enough quality to go around. Water stewardship is among the United Nations' sustainable development goals; goal six aims to ensure access to water and sanitation for all. The more water security is threatened by climate change and population growth, the more essential it will be to design water stewardship pro-actively into all of our activities. It’s a problem that demands in-depth understanding and decisive action, so let’s dive in.

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