Today, according to United Nations Water, more than two billion people lack access to safe drinking water. And climate change is only intensifying this water shortage. The UN estimates that one in four people may live in a country affected by chronic shortages of freshwater by 2050. According to the World Bank, this climate-induced reduction in freshwater availability, coupled with increased demand, could reduce water availability in cities by more than 66% by 2050.
Water is essential to life. We depend on it for our survival. The basic need has shaped how human societies have advanced over time. Explorers from pre-Columbian times and the age of antiquity to NASA have lived by the motto follow the water as they have sought and continue to seek to discover new opportunities for the expansion of human civilization.
While water is plentiful – covering 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface – 97 per cent of this water is saline, located in our oceans, and not fit to drink or use for crops. The world’s fresh water is not equally distributed or accessible and is found disproportionately in places where people do not live. And as human civilization has expanded, we have reached the point globally where humanity depletes the available freshwater supply at a rate of 4.3 trillion cubic meters every year – the majority of which goes to agricultural and industrial uses.
“This needs to change,” Brad Smith, president of Microsoft says. “That is why we are announcing an ambitious commitment for Microsoft to be water positive for our direct operations by 2030. We are tackling our water consumption in two ways: reducing our water use intensity – or the water we use per megawatt of energy used for our operations – and replenishing water in the water- stressed regions we operate. This means that by 2030 Microsoft will replenish more water than it consumes on a global basis.
“As with our other environmental commitments, we hope these steps will help contribute to a growing movement to address the world’s sustainability needs.”
More momentum is clearly needed.
Getting ahead of the world’s water crisis will require a reduction in the amount of water humans use to operate economies and societies, as well as a concerted effort to ensure there is sufficient water in the places it is needed most. This will require a transformation in the way we manage our water systems and a concerted effort for all organizations to account for and balance their water use.
“As a global technology company Microsoft is prepared to act on both accounts, taking responsibility for our own water use and partnering on technology platforms to help others do the same,” Smith adds. “Over the past year we have committed Microsoft to becoming a carbon negative, zero waste company that is building a new planetary computing platform to transform the way we monitor, model, and ultimately manage Earth’s natural systems. Our pledge today to become water positive by 2030 adds a fourth pillar to this work. And as in our other areas, we are committed not only to setting ambitious goals for ourselves but using technology to better help our customers to do the same.”
Water positive by 2030
According to Smith Microsoft will be water positive by 2030. This means they will replenish more water than they use. “We will do this by putting back more water in stressed basins than our global water consumption across all basins. The amount returned will be determined by how much water we use and how stressed the basin is.
“Our replenishment strategy will include investments in projects such as wetland restoration and the removal of impervious surfaces like asphalt, which will help replenish water back into the basins that need it most. We will focus our replenishment efforts on roughly 40 highly stressed basins where we have operations. This reflects a science-based assessment of the world’s water basins.”
The majority of the world’s freshwater is divided into 16,396 basins, each of which has been assigned a baseline water stress score by the World Resources Institute (WRI), a leading non-profit global research organisation that focuses on natural resources. A basin is considered highly stressed if the amount of water withdrawn exceeds 40 per cent of the renewable supply. Globally there are 4,717 basins that fall into this category.
“All of this work will build on our ongoing investments, and advances water reduction and replenishment across our operations,” Smith continues. “This includes a sustainability design standard across Microsoft that requires water conservation at all locations globally. These include our new Silicon Valley campus, opening later this year in California that features an on-site rainwater collection system and waste treatment plant to ensure 100 per cent of the site’s non-potable water comes from onsite recycled sources. An integrated water management system will manage and reuse rainwater and wastewater. By recycling our water, the campus will save an estimated 4.3 million gallons of potable water each year.”
This is just one example amongst many of Microsoft’s water conservation efforts. Nearly halfway around the world, the new Microsoft Herzliya, Israel campus features water-efficient plumbing fixtures that drive up water conservation by 35 per cent. In addition, 100 per cent of the water collected from air conditioners will be used to water plants on-site.
In India, the newest building on the Microsoft Hyderabad campus will support 100 per cent treatment and reuse of wastewater on-site for landscaping, flushing, and cooling tower makeup. At its headquarters redevelopment in Puget Sound, all new office buildings will reuse harvested rainwater in flush fixtures and low-flow systems, which is projected to save more than 5.8 million gallons annually.
At Microsoft’s new data center region in Arizona, available for use in 2021, they are innovating ways to reduce water use intensity and replenish water in this highly stressed region. “We will use zero water for cooling for more than half the year, leveraging a method called adiabatic cooling, which uses outside air instead of water for cooling when temperatures are below 85 degrees Fahrenheit,” Smith explains. “When temperatures are above 85 degrees, an evaporative cooling system is used, acting like a swamp cooler that you find in residential homes. This system is highly efficient, using less electricity and up to 90% less water than other water-based cooling systems, such as cooling towers.
“We are also partnering with First Solar to provide solar energy rather than traditional electricity generation, which is expected to save more than 350 million litres of water annually. Our reduction in water use intensity and our replenishment commitments address the key issue of water availability, which is the amount of water that can be used to meet demand.
“That, however, is only part of the challenge. Equally important is the issue of accessibility, which is the supply of safe drinking water and sanitation. That is why we are partnering with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to ensure more than 1.5 million people have access to clean drinking and sanitation water. We will focus this work in seven countries. We’ll start by partnering with Water.org, a leading global non-profit focused on underserved communities, to help people in Brazil, India, Indonesia and Mexico. We will then expand this work with partners in China, Malaysia and South Africa.”