To produce $1 of GDP Turkmenistan uses 43 times more water than Spain

I was invited to speak at the World Youth Forum-2018 this November. Although I was sharing the platform with such internationally esteemed co-panellists as Emmy-nominated environmentalist Philip Cousteau-Jr and Egypt’s Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Dr Mohammed El Aaty, I couldn’t possibly anticipate the level of interest our water-centric discussion ended up generating

It was not only Ministers and members of the press who filled the room. Youth proved to be equally as engaged in the issues of water security. That is, considering that the forum had no shortage of personalities that young people traditionally gravitate to: from David Hansen, who created Sophia the humanoid-robot, to social media influencers like Jerome Jarre, who managed to turn his “Vine” popularity into a successful philanthropic career.   

One might argue that the topic of water security is not necessarily as buzz-generating as AI or e-sports. Yet, as I’m reminded daily, the number of millennials and Gen Z’ers, who find refuge in thinking of themselves as part of the solution to the world’s most pressing problems, is ever-growing. Mindless consumerism is being taken over by conscious consumption, as people are becoming more aware of both direct and indirect consequences of their choices. Thus, a recent survey by “Fashion Revolution” indicates that 61% of Europeans want to know what brands are doing to minimise their impacts on environment and human rights. It is worth noting that conscious consumption is distinctly different from minimalist lifestyle. When “Rich Kids of Instagram” are seen as both glamorous and aspirational, we simply cannot expect everybody to buy into minimalism. Yet, we need to adapt by being creative with our choices now, if we don’t want minimalism to eventually become the only viable option.

Yelena Novikova (right)
Yelena Novikova (on right)

The exact title of our panel discussion at WYF- 2018 was “Day Zero: Water Security in the Wake of Climate Change”. If you are interested in IT, you might be familiar with a term “Zero-Day Vulnerability”, which means a software security flaw that is unknown to software vendor and that makes software vulnerable until the fix is released. However, the “Day Zero” that we are referring to implies that it is people, that are bound to be vulnerable until we fix the flaws in our water consumption.

The term “Day Zero”, as environmentalists know it, is used to refer to specific situation in South Africa. Coming to terms with harsh realities of a severe drought in October 2017, the Mayor of Cape Town was forced to inform 4 million residents that the city was likely to run out of water. The date, when it was projected to happen, was dubbed “Day Zero”. In a bid to avoid this scenario from unravelling, authorities imposed daily limit of 50 litters of water per person (To put it into context, that is roughly the amount of water one would use to flush average toilet 3 or 4 times). Farmers also had to reduce its water use by 40%. Thanks to the imposed measures, Cape Town eventually managed to cut water consumption by 60%: from 1.2 bln tonnes of water a day to 550-500 mln.

 A mere fact that the city dams are now 73% full does indicate that people can change their consumption habits when faced with adversity. However, would that be fair to portray the situation as triumph of collective action over selfish consumerism? I would rather consider it to be a reminder to literally thatch our roofs before the rain begins. While it illustrates that people are perfectly capable of tweaking their behaviours in critical situation, it disregards all the hidden costs associated with such last-minute approach.

At the end of November Elon Musk took to Twitter to inform those worried about deficits of fresh water that desalinisation wasn’t really that expensive. Being one of the most celebrated business visionaries of this generation, he might find it curious that neither availability of dedicated desalinisation facilities nor the fact that the crisis was successfully resolved helped tourism industry. The industry that used to experience 20% year-on-year growth, took a 20% hit, once it was forced to introduce radical drought-related measures (e.g. closed down some swimming pools). As of mid-November, potential tourists that predominantly come from Britain and Australia remain largely unaware that Cape Town is no longer in  water crisis. Meanwhile, around 330 000 local jobs depend on success of tourism industry.

Although it might seem worlds apart from the problem of water security, something similar has just happened with a renowned British fashion-retailer “Ted Baker”. A fortnight ago, the company was successfully navigating High Street ahead of many competitors despite tricky pre-Brexit times. However, as soon as its employees published a petition alleging questionable behaviour of its eccentric CEO Ray Kelvin towards young female staff members, the stock plummeted by 13%. One might ask: “Why Is it similar?” Even considering that the company was quick to react, the damage was done before the appointed law firm even started its probe into incidents. To make matters worse, all of that occurred in the most lucrative season of the year.

As decent human beings, we like to see various issues and injustices being addressed. Be it water security, gender equality or just about anything else. However, we understandably cannot enjoy if when it negatively affects our economies (the way it happened with Cape Town’s tourism industry) or reflects on financial performance of the companies we are working for (the way it happened with “Ted Baker”). So where is the sweet spot between addressing important social issues and making sure that the economy is not getting hurt in the process? It is not in waiting for proverbial “Day Zero” to make us act. Neither should it necessarily be about self-imposing more minimalist lifestyles. That sweet spot can only truly be achieved once we start perceiving ourselves as parts of the ecosystem. 

After talking to me, journalists from one of the Arabic news outlets wrote: “Yelena Novikova thinks that water security is societal responsibility”. Do I really think so? Assuming we move beyond mere individual action to consider our place and leverage over corporate and investing communities, I absolutely do think so. If we’re eventually to be forced into behavioural change either way, why not to start understanding how we can leverage our individual influence instead of simply sticking to individual action?

No matter how much someone might be committed to the cause of water security (or, say, to the cause of gender equality), s/he exists within the context of one’s interactions with business and investing communities, not as a standalone change agent. Simply put, you can limit your water consumption to 50 litres a day and then buy a pair of jeans without realising it takes 7,600 litres of water to produce them. (Which would be equivalent to 152 daily rations of water in this scenario).

What would be some regular go-to alternatives here? Minimalism could offer the most obvious solution, as people increasingly ask themselves if they really need items in question. This becomes increasingly more relevant as studies by Cornell University’s Thomas Gilovich indicate that while new experiences end up becoming a part of person identity, people simply adapt to new things. That is, happiness gained from a theatre visit is likely to last significantly longer than a temporary joy of buying those “7,600 litre” jeans. Though if you really need an item, fans of charity shops would direct you towards pre-loved items, while proponents of the sharing economy would suggest that you rent something on one of the platforms. Yet, while these options highlight one’s concern over depletion of such resources as fresh water, none of these options are necessarily about being a part of something bigger than oneself.

Let’s get closer to home. British investigative journalist Stacey Dooley has recently visited Aral Sea, while filming her documentary on dirty secrets of fashion industry. Upon her return from Kazakhstan, she started stopping shoppers on the streets of Glasgow to show them just how much water was used to produce their new garments. The majority of shoppers, most of whom were unlikely to know much about Aral Sea, felt moved to change their consumer habits.

It is worth noting that to change one’s habits doesn’t imply putting an end to consumerism all together. It is rather about having a greater understanding of the context in which it happens. For example, a wide variety of brands from Ikea, H&M and Nike to Levi’s and Burberry signed up to the 100% by 2025 pledge with a goal of making cotton sustainable. In most cases, basic information on pledges, supply chains and sustainability performance of companies is no more than a couple clicks away. Whether customers realise it or not, every time they decide to make conscious decisions, they sent signals to investors.

According to conservative estimates, about 20 bln of global AUM (assets under management) are invested with social, environmental and governance performance indicators in mind along with financial ones. This trend is set to continue for the years to come. “State First investments” reported in their November 2018 study that over 80% of millennials, who aren’t already investing in ESG products are either “interested” or “very interested” to see their capital allocated in a way that would benefit society and environment.

It is thanks to these trends in investing, that each one of us can help sustainable and responsible companies improve their access to capital and increase their competitiveness. Not to mention it is likely to raise the bar for the entire industry, as competitors inevitably race from the bottom. Most importantly, once the bar starts raising for the companies themselves, it also raises across the supply chains.

Whenever I start talking to Kazakhstanis about multinationals that sign sustainable cotton communiques or investors that are determined to become part of the solution, people tend to react as if I’m talking about some parallel universe, that is irrelevant to their lives. Average shoppers, who are parading Kazakh High Streets this holiday season, are unlikely to make connections between their new shirt from a global brand and Central Asian water security.

Meanwhile, to produce 1 Dollar of GDP, Central Asian Turkmenistan uses 43 times more water than Spain and 14 times more water than China. It is not just Turkmenistan or Central Asia that disadvantage from such water-inefficiency. Those brands, that are interested in sourcing cotton along with attracting capital, are not exactly benefitting from this situation either. Whether we recognise it or not, it is us, who influence the situation one way or the other, whenever we make our purchasing decisions.

Soviet Kazakhstanis used to recycle paper, compost and turn the water off, when they were brushing teeth. It is ironic that for all the emphasis that communists used to put on collective action, it was simply impossible for people to think and act globally. Times have changed. It is important to realise that by gaining unlimited access to everything that the world has to offer, we should accept equally unlimited collective responsibility that came with it. If a random shopper from Glasgow feels compelled to address connection between her consumer habits and the Aral Sea, we simply cannot keep making excuses. The time of complaining about having too many of “our own problems” has long been gone. 

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23 октября родились
Аскар Мамин
премьер-министр Республики Казахстан
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