Opening eyes to ‘invisible water’ at the CSR Asia Summit

In the lead up to this year’s CSR Asia Summit, Mina Guli, CEO of Thirst, shares her insights on how the growing demand for water is creating a global crisis – and what we can do about it.

Mina Guli
Athlete, educator, and water champion Mina Guli is received by supporters during her epic 7 Deserts Run. Image: Thirst

Ever since she was a child growing up in Melbourne, Australian environmental activist Mina Guli had been practising water conservation in her day-to-day life.

She then spent most of her adult life working in climate change – first as a climate change lawyer, then at the World Bank, where she helped develop the first carbon projects in China, India, Nepal and Indonesia, and structured seven of the World Bank’s carbon funds.

However, it wasn’t until she was named a Young Global Leader for the World Economic Forum in 2010, and asked to moderate a discussion with Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, former chairman and CEO of the Nestlé Group, that she discovered the concept of “invisible water”.

From Brabeck-Letmathe, Guli learnt that more that 95 per cent of the water used comes from outside the home.

“The water we drink, brush our teeth and shower with, practising conservation in these areas only makes a tiny difference. The bulk of our water consumption is from the water that goes into the making of consumer products we use every day – coffee, chocolate, clothing, paper, the fruit we eat, the chair we sit on. This is what’s called invisible water,” explains Guli, who, currently in her 40s, became a champion for water conservation, focusing her efforts on demand management.

There are a number of organisations such as Charity: Water and Global Water that look at issues with water supply management, but Guli says that we also need to pay attention to problems with demand, as ground water in many parts of the world is being used far faster that it can be replenished.

“It is predicted that by 2030, our demand for water will exceed our available water supply by 40 per cent. We are headed towards a major global problem, and unless we do something about it, a major water crisis is on our doorstep,” she says.

In 2012, along with a few of her friends from the Young Global Leaders community, she founded Thirst, an organisation that works at increasing awareness about invisible water and that encourages people to take action to prevent a crisis.

Water is a major resource. Without water, we die. To solve the water crisis, we need to start by sharing information.

Mina Guli, founder, Thirst

Not many people know that when they choose to drink a cup of tea over a cup of coffee, they can save almost 120 litres per cup, or that the amount of water used to make a burger is equivalent to the volume required for a two-hour shower.

Guli believes that knowledge is power, and that when armed with the right information, consumers have a significant amount of power to control demand through their purchasing habits.

“We need to be smart about what we buy, and where we buy from. We need to identify companies that have a good record of water sustainability throughout the supply chain, and reward these companies through our purchasing habits,” says Guli.

“If we do this, companies will have an incentive to change their water consumption and find more efficient and sustainable ways to use and process water.”

She set up Thirst’s headquarters in China because the country is one of the fastest growing consumer economies and, in many respects, the epicentre of the global supply chain.

“Also, as far as we knew, there were no global environmental groups that had started in China. I think it’s time that young Chinese stood up to the rest of the world to say, ‘this is an issue we care about, come join us in taking action in tackling one of the biggest problems facing our society and our generation’,” she says.

Thirst has had much success disseminating information among China’s youth through educational modules at schools, Thirst Club school collaborations, youth competitions, and online training programmes for water conservation educators known as Thirst Ambassadors.

Today, Thirst operates in 28 cities in 12 Chinese provinces with almost 1,000 volunteers. More than 500,000 students have been through their education programmes and over 150,000 students have participated in their innovation competition.

Sometime in 2015, Guli decided to carry the Thirst message beyond China to the rest of the world.

In February 2016, she embarked on the “7 Deserts Run” to raise awareness about the water crisis, and became the first person to run 40 marathons across seven deserts on seven continents within seven weeks.

Her choices in this seven-week challenge had a symbolic significance to them: 40 marathons was because the difference between supply and demand of water by 2030 is expected to be 40 per cent; seven continents because this issue would affect the entire world; and deserts because she wanted to illustrate that we would be living in a desert if the water problem was not solved soon.

“I realised we couldn’t solve a global problem by just being in one country. We needed to make an impact beyond China,” says Guli.

During her time in the various continents, she met different people with water stories of their own.

In the Atacama in Chile, she met a man who collected water from the condensation from hillside fogs; in an aboriginal community in Simpson, Australia, she spoke to families who established their homes based on the location of water holes; and in Richtersveld, South Africa, communities lamented how their beloved Orange River had dropped 6m in six years.

Reading about water problems in the media and trying to understand it on an intellectual level was one thing, but it was a whole new experience for her meeting and speaking with people on the ground who are affected by the problem.

“You don’t connect with the depth and seriousness of it until you really understand how it affects humanity,” says Guli, “Water is a major resource. Without water, we die. To solve the water crisis, we need to start by sharing information.”

Mina Guli is one of the keynote speakers at the CSR Asia Summit 2016 taking place on September 28-29 in Hong Kong. She will speak about the nature of the water crisis, the concept of invisible water, the need for more water sustainable business practices, as well as the consequences that will result from making changes. Eco-Business readers get 10% off tickets with the promo code ‘ECOSAVE16’ - so register here. 

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