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Coming soon: ‘Sustainable water’ certification

Istanbul — A couple of years from now, beer, cola, rice, breakfast cereal, cotton T-shirts and many other goods may come with a new logo: a label which says the water used to make this product came from a sustainable source.

The scheme, unveiled at the World Water Forum in Istanbul last month, seeks to make a "Water Stewardship" tag as successful as Forest Stewardship Certification, a fast-growing system that combats illegal or unsustainable logging.

"That there is a crisis in water is a given, and that we need to address it is a given. That’s why there’s so much momentum behind developing a global standard," said Michael Spencer, director of the Water Stewardship Initiative of Australia, part of the project.

The idea of water certification would have been considered bizarre only a few years ago.

Water has been traditionally viewed as a resource that, because it tumbles out of the sky and is recycled by nature, is as free as the air we breathe.

But water stress or droughts now grip highly-populated countries in a swathe from Morocco to China, and the breadbaskets of Australia and the United States are often dangerously parched.

Some rivers, exhausted by overuse, now dry up before they reach the sea and ancient aquifers are being wound down at massive rates, un-replenished by rainwater. Irresponsible irrigation and pollution are major problems.

As a result, said Spencer, perception of water has changed.

It is seen more and more as a resource that has to be valued and carefully managed, rather than a substance that because it is free or cheap can be abused or wasted, he told AFP.

The new initiative takes its cue from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which has 12,000 participating companies involved in commercial forestry or use of timber.

It has so far certified more than 100 million hectares (250 million acres) of land as being under sustainable forest management. Companies which win certification have the right to use the FSC’s tree logo, which is sought by environmentally-sensitive consumers, especially in Europe.

"The Forest Stewardship Council exists as a mechanism for certifying wood products as sustainable, and the Fair Trade system allows consumers to choose products that support and sustain local communities, but no such programme exists for water," explained Jonathan Kaplan of the Nature Conservancy, a US green group that is part of the embryonic scheme.

"The Alliance for Water Stewardship will lead the charge towards development of the first-ever standards to improve the way water is managed around the world."

Six environmental groups, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have joined in the scheme, which will include corporations and social groups, said Spencer.

Many firms hanker for a common standard for water use, saying it would help risk management of a critical ingredient in their business, he said.

By mid-year, the alliance hopes to complete a set of core standards that would be applicable around the world, to which local criteria could be added.

"Within 18 months, two years," the logo is likely to see daylight, Spencer said.

By 2030, according to a report issued on Tuesday by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 3.9 billion people, or nearly half of the world’s population, could be living in severe water stress — a tally that does not include the impacts of climate change.