PUBLIC POV: How Brands Are Tackling the Global Water Crisis

As Cape Town, South Africa’s water supply depletes, PUBLIC Inc. looks at innovative companies using their resources to address global water security.

For the past few months, the residents of Cape Town have been recycling rainwater, buying water bottles, and hiring companies to dig wells. This is all in an effort to stave off “Day Zero”, the point at which the city’s four million residents will no longer have access to water at all.

A significant drought hit the city four years ago, and since that time water consumption has been cut in half through local conservation efforts. According to a 2018 GroundUp report, a drought of this severity only occurs about every 300 years. The report further explains that Cape Town’s water supply is mostly sourced outside of the city limits and suggests human-made climate change likely contributed to lower rainfall in the regional catchment area.

While Day Zero has been deferred and immediate danger has waned, Cape Town serves as a reminder that water security is an urgent global challenge that government and businesses must address.

Entrepreneurs are already working with materials from solar panels to large fog nets in an effort to convert massive amounts of rainwater into drinkable water. While these technologies offer promising solutions, the scale is unfortunately not nearly enough to address the growing global water crisis.

Currently, 700 million people lack access to water, and 2.4 billion are without access to sanitation. The United Nations is even projecting a 55 per cent increase in water demand, and a 40 per cent drop in global water supply by 2030. With these striking numbers in mind, larger brands are banding together to address water security on a bigger scale. Here’s a look at how three companies are using their expertise to tackle water scarcity.

Virgin Mobile

Virgin Mobile addressed Cape Town’s crisis shortly after Day Zero was announced. In late 2017, CEO Richard Branson visited Virgin Active South Africa (the company’s health club) to connect with the Cape Town team and to understand how Virgin Active is conserving water.

Earlier in the year, Branson made the decision to turn off sauna and steam facilities at Virgin Active South Africa, an initiative that saved 650,000 litres of water per month. The company then took the money saved on water bills and invested it back into water scarcity relief efforts. Virgin has committed to reduce water consumption, and invest in water efficiency in its operations. Thus far, the company has reduced water consumption by 53 per cent since 2016.


In light of consistent droughts in California, Microsoft announced in December that it would build the first tech campus in Silicon Valley with a “net-zero water certification”. This means that campus non-potable water will come from rain or recycled water.

Microsoft’s campus project builds on the company’s 2017 World Water Day initiative, the Water Risk Monetizer (WRM). Microsoft used its internal talents and skills to deliver a data-based solution (WRM) that visually shows financial risk related to water scarcity. The idea behind the WRM was that data supports the business case to monitor and reduce water consumption. By using the WRM within the company, Microsoft was able to save $140,000 in water costs per year, and save 58.3 million gallons of drinkable water annually.

Omo (Unilever)

Omo has sustainability at the core of its business plan. In 2014, during Brazil’s ongoing water crisis, Unilever brand Omo launched its #1RinseIsEnough campaign to remind customers that rinsing laundry over and over can waste a lot of water. To provide an alternate and bolster their own product, Unilever highlighted how Omo detergent gets the job done with one rinse only. Omo estimates the campaign helped to conserve nearly 229 billion litres of water, and grew the brand by 15 per cent. Unilever’s other brands also tie into a larger company strategy that contributes to global sustainable development goals (SDGs).


Aside from delivering impact on an important issue, there has been a significant business incentive for companies to consider water scarcity in decision-making. In 2016, companies reported $14 billion of water-related impacts — a staggering rise compared to $2.6 billion in 2015.

In addition to mitigating risk, prioritizing water issues is a business opportunity. Companies that integrate the SDGs into business strategy could unlock nearly $12 trillion of market opportunities, according to a 2017 Business and Sustainable Development Commission (BSDC) report. These opportunities exist in agriculture, cities, energy, materials and healthcare, representing about 60 per cent of the real economy. The BSDC encourages companies to prioritize water sustainability in the same way market share and shareholder value are prioritized.

With increasing populations, economic activity, and climate change impacts, there will inevitably be greater competition for water. Given this reality, the efforts of companies such Virgin Mobile, Microsoft, and Unilever are vital in the pursuit to protect our most precious resource. More broadly, it’s important for governments, businesses and individual citizens to take action now, before another city faces the dire situation of Cape Town. Let’s not wait for another Day Zero.

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