The sustainable investor for a changing world

Forward thinking | Article - 4 Min

Universal access to clean water and sanitation has wide-ranging benefits

As a resource that is critical to life on Earth, it behoves us as stewards of the planet to look after water. Beyond answers to droughts and floods, and the damage they do to the economy, other areas such as providing clean water and sanitation can have considerable benefits for society at large that extend from reduced healthcare costs to improved productivity.  

Access to clean water and sanitation is recognised by the United Nations as a basic human right and is embodied in its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In 2022, around two billion people lacked access to safely managed drinking water and almost 50% of the global population lacked access to safely managed sanitation services, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania (see Exhibit 1).

On World Water Day 2023, with its focus on SDG 6 – ensuring universal access to safe and affordable water by 2030 – we look at the impact that investment in infrastructure, providing sanitation facilities, better hygiene and the protection of water-related ecosystems can have. 

Research by WaterAid and Vivid Economics estimates that a dollar invested in water, sanitation and hygiene generates a return of USD 21. 

  • Ensuring all people have access to a toilet connected to a safe waste management system could result in USD 86 billion per year in increased productivity and reduced health costs.
  • Access to handwashing facilities could yield USD 45 billion per year.
  • Ensuring all households have a tap could deliver USD 37 billion per year. 

Water stress

Water stress is growing across all continents. Around 19% of total water withdrawals are used for industrial purposes, such as the production of clothing, food and energy, alongside the 70% used in agriculture every year. If current practices continue, water demand could exceed current supply by 40% by 2030. By 2050, the number of people experiencing water stress could double.

Poor infrastructure contributes water stress. For instance, persistent flooding, operational failures, understaffing and decades-long infrastructure decay led the main water treatment plant in Jackson, Mississippi to break down. Some 180 000 residents were left without safe water – even for brushing teeth or giving to pets, while there was not enough water to flush toilets, fight fires or meet other critical needs.

Another infrastructure problem is leaky pipes, which result in an estimated loss of 126 billion cubic metres of water a year, costing USD 39 billion.

Ultimately, these factors are leading to more acute events – when municipal water supplies are switched off – as seen in Australia, South Africa, India and the US.

Regulation and engagement

There are regulations in place that set standards for water infrastructure, some of which are listed below, but without investment it will be difficult to meet the requirements involved.

Examples of legislation around the world: 

We also believe engagement can contribute to pushing companies to identify water-related issues and come up with solutions. In 2022, we took part in the annual CDP Non-Disclosure Campaign designed to encourage companies that have a big impact on climate, forests and water to improve their disclosure. We selected 379 companies to engage with by signing joint letters (on all three topics) and we led engagement with 14 companies with a focus on forests and water.

What are possible solutions?

The most cost-effective solution to addressing water loss is leak management. This includes technologies such as acoustic sensors, blockchain and satellites to detect leaks. Improvements to filtration and wastewater treatment would bolster freshwater supplies.

One option gaining traction worldwide is desalination. There are two main types: thermal desalination and membrane desalination (mainly based on reverse osmosis). The latter is used most commonly. Challenges that need addressing include energy consumption and pollution.

Another method is granular activated carbon (GAC), which uses materials including coconut shells, wood or bituminous coal. The process, alone or in combination with an ultraviolet disinfection system, can remove contaminants such as organic materials, drugs and disinfection by-products. GAC is environmentally friendly as it can be reactivated via thermal oxidation and used multiple times.

In addition, we should mention solutions to limit water consumption and improve efficient use. Mandatory 25% cuts in California in 2015 were achieved through reducing use and water efficiency. This proved to be more cost effective than using desalination plants which can be expensive to build and run.

Part of the problem is a failure to sufficiently value water. According to UNESCO, water is often viewed exclusively in relation to its cost price without accounting for its holistic value, which is almost impossible to put a price on.

In response, the World Economic Forum established the Commission on the Economics of Water to advise on water management. The group is considering advocating for a global price for freshwater and explores incentives to maintain water supplies.

Some companies are setting up their own internal prices for water and it has even been suggested that a futures markets for water should be set up. These measures have been met with a mixed response despite potentially alleviating the USD 320 billion per year government burden to subsidise safe water supplies.

Investment opportunities range across water infrastructure, water treatment and utilities. There are also indirect ways in which invested capital can improve water consumption in both industrial processes and agriculture.

Investment in innovative and emerging technologies has the potential to ensure everyone has access to safe, clean water and sanitation.


Please note that articles may contain technical language. For this reason, they may not be suitable for readers without professional investment experience. Any views expressed here are those of the author as of the date of publication, are based on available information, and are subject to change without notice. Individual portfolio management teams may hold different views and may take different investment decisions for different clients. This document does not constitute investment advice. The value of investments and the income they generate may go down as well as up and it is possible that investors will not recover their initial outlay. Past performance is no guarantee for future returns. Investing in emerging markets, or specialised or restricted sectors is likely to be subject to a higher-than-average volatility due to a high degree of concentration, greater uncertainty because less information is available, there is less liquidity or due to greater sensitivity to changes in market conditions (social, political and economic conditions). Some emerging markets offer less security than the majority of international developed markets. For this reason, services for portfolio transactions, liquidation and conservation on behalf of funds invested in emerging markets may carry greater risk.
Environmental, social and governance (ESG) investment risk: The lack of common or harmonised definitions and labels integrating ESG and sustainability criteria at EU level may result in different approaches by managers when setting ESG objectives. This also means that it may be difficult to compare strategies integrating ESG and sustainability criteria to the extent that the selection and weightings applied to select investments may be based on metrics that may share the same name but have different underlying meanings. In evaluating a security based on the ESG and sustainability criteria, the Investment Manager may also use data sources provided by external ESG research providers. Given the evolving nature of ESG, these data sources may for the time being be incomplete, inaccurate or unavailable. Applying responsible business conduct standards in the investment process may lead to the exclusion of securities of certain issuers. Consequently, (the Sub-Fund's) performance may at times be better or worse than the performance of relatable funds that do not apply such standards.

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