Investing for cleaner water solutions

Water is required across all sectors of society – to produce food, energy, goods and services. But despite all the advances made in other areas of our lives, billions of people around the globe still live without safely managed drinking water, sanitation and hygiene services. What’s more, over the last century, global water use has increased at more than twice the rate of population growth. Many water sources are drying up, becoming more polluted or both. A dramatic acceleration in current rates of progress, integrated and holistic approaches to water management are needed.

“Water is life, and clean water means health.”
— Audrey Hepburn, actress and humanitarian

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal #6

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal #6 (UN SDG 6) looks to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030. In addition, it aims to achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all, with special attention going towards women and girls and those in vulnerable situations. It has eight targets in total, encompassing themes like reducing pollution, increasing water-use efficiency and protecting water-related ecosystems.

Water sanitation and women

In many societies, women are responsible for the household water supply, sanitation and health. Without safe drinking water, adequate sanitation and menstrual hygiene facilities at home and in public places, women and girls find it harder to lead safe, productive and healthy lives.

Mike Sell, manager of Alquity Indian Subcontinent fund told me how sanitation and sanitary hygiene is a major health issue in many developing countries. “Only 18% of women in India use sanitary napkins and approximately 60% of women are diagnosed with vaginal and urinary tract diseases and infections every year as a result of poor menstrual hygiene,” he said. “Amrutanjan, is an Indian health care company founded in Mumbai in 1893, which produces a sanitary napkin brand called ‘Comfy’. Comfy is more than 10% cheaper than equivalent brands and the company has superior distribution networks in the rural areas, which means the product can reach those most in need.”

Alquity supports progress on UN SDG 6 both through its investment process and holdings as well as through its Transforming Lives Foundation. Mike elaborated “we do not invest in any high water usage company (e.g. beverage manufacturer) that does not fully disclose its water usage or conservation levels to us. We see this as the bare minimum and then engage further to identify their plans for water conservation and supply security. Many traditional industrial sectors can use very significant levels of water or produce waste that can pollute natural water courses. We prioritise those companies that minimise this impact. For example, Ultratech Cement in India collects 2.5 times more water than it withdraws from the environment.”

How can investors help?

Access to water is an undeniable human right, yet it’s estimated that 700 million people worldwide could be displaced by intense water scarcity by 2030*, and 20 countries could be experiencing water shortages by 2040**. We can’t move forward as a global society while so many people are living without access to safe water.

Evoqua Water Technologies, top holding in Rathbone Greenbank Global Sustainability fund^ is a leading provider of water and wastewater treatment solutions. Evoqua provides solutions for customers with critical water needs for energy generation, food and beverage safety and production, healthcare, manufacturing and many more.

Water conservation is also one of the underlying themes of IFSL Marlborough Global Innovation. Research analyst Tom Hutchinson tells us more about the work of Evoqua in our recent podcast:

Developing countries aren’t alone with their issues over water supplies. Most European cities are using groundwater faster than it can be replenished and innovation is needed, not only to create new systems, but also to preserve old ones. For example, London’s water pipes leak 40% of its supply every day!

Polypipe, a holding in ASI UK Ethical Equity^, is one of Europe’s largest manufacturers of piping systems, water and climate management systems, delivering engineered solutions that enable a sustainable built environment. It produces pipes and fittings – using recycled materials where appropriate – and all products are 100% recyclable at the end of their useful life.

Jamie Jenkins, manager of BMO Responsible Global Equity, previously told us how a consistent focus of the fund has been the theme of water. “Now, water is increasingly seen as a precious global resource,” he said. “We see more and more chances that water is going to form the basis of geopolitical flashpoints around the world. And it’s so key to economic development trends. Water is not a new sustainability theme, but we think it is more relevant than ever that companies and people, more importantly, have access to safe and reliable access to water. And we see some really strong long-term trends underpinning this theme.” Listen to his full views on our podcast.

Interconnected goals

It is evident clean water is vital and interlinks with several UN SDGs. As this series has previously explored, universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene services goes well beyond household use. Globally, only two in three schools had basic drinking water and sanitation services, and three in five schools had basic hygiene services in 2019^^. This means that 818 million children lacked basic hand washing facilities at their schools at the start of the pandemic (UN SDG 4). Similarly, at the start of the pandemic, 2.3 billion people worldwide lacked a basic hand washing facility with soap and water at home. Another 670 million had no hand washing facility at all^^.

We’ve covered how integrated water concerns are for women and girls (UN SDG 5), our health (UN SDG 3) and how it predominantly affects the most rural and poorest regions (UN SDG 1). Water usage, as highlighted by Alquity, is increasingly important in the garment industry and our consumption of fast fashion (UN SDG 12).

In addition to water stress and water pollution, countries are facing growing challenges linked to degraded water-related ecosystems (UN SDG 14), water scarcity caused by climate change (UN SDG 13), underinvestment in water and sanitation, and insufficient cooperation on transboundary waters.

*Source: FundCalibre, podcast episode 182, March 2022
**Source: TED Talk (Dec 2018) Are we running out of clean water?
^Source: fund factsheet, 28 February 2022
^^Source: UN Sustainable Development Goals, 2021 Report

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