Managers once could count on water. Diverted rivers and pumped aquifers supplied all businesses with that ultimate liquid asset. Turn the tap and water flowed: cheap, abundant, and reliable. Companies turned currents into currency, governments secured infrastructure, and few felt exposed to risk. But lately that sense of immunity is evaporating in our "flat, hot, and crowded" world.
Goldman Sachs recently warned investors that global water consumption had attained an "unsustainable" rate of growth. Two in five executives now say a water shortage would be "severe" or "catastrophic" for their global industries, but less than 17% are prepared for that calamity. The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, predicted that civilization faced no "limits to growth"—with one exception: scarce fresh water.
That exception has proved the rule from Asia and Africa to southern Europe and the U.S. The cause of global water scarcity is threefold: a global population of 6 billion to 9 billion increasingly affluent people, their exponential increase in consumption, and a fast-changing climate.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently confirmed that global warming is not coming to America; it has arrived. Less rain and higher levels of evaporation have stressed regions with the fastest growth. In drought-struck Atlanta, for example, industries have been forced to react to water shortages. UPS scrambled to install dry urinals and Coca Cola killed its water fountains at the head office. Others have shut down branches or fired landscape workers.
Managing with Little Water Effective managers go beyond damage control and adapt. They "climate-proof" their businesses. How? Success leaves clues. As we head into an era hotter and drier than the past 30,000 years, insights come from experienced managers who have thrived for an even longer span of time with almost no water: the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert.
Bushmen may at first seem unlikely role models for the corner office. After all, they don't manage money or people; just themselves. Many are non-literate; some can't count. And while their DNA makes them the closest genetic relatives to an anthropological Adam and Eve, they are not physically or ethically superhuman. They feel envy, fatigue, hunger pangs, and thirst, just like the rest of us.
But out in the desert, without government subsidies or enforcement, they manage to convert self-interest into self-regulating interdependence. They soften tension into laughter. They transform water, however sparse, into their cohesive social glue.
The Bushmen's "Seven Habits of Highly Resilient People" turn resource scarcity into relative abundance. Here are the rules they live by:
1. Seek shelter. Their only enemy is the sun, a death force like a hyena. Where you see a reservoir, Bushmen see a sacrifice to the gods. They trap and secure water in closed, concealed, evaporation-proof storage systems—a strategy that other communities would be wise to adopt.
2. Consume local. As Bushmen eat and drink closest to the source, they avoid leaks, spills, pollution, and exposure in transport. All of us can save time, labor, and resources by minimizing long supply chains conveying fresh water resources.
3. Diversify supply. Bushmen obtain 80% of their water budget from what's in the ground; They capture the rest from dispersed pockets in the natural infrastructure. Rather than depend on one dam, which may fail or dry up, companies can spread risk and boost resilience through existing technology that taps groundwater, fog, dew, reuse, or runoff.
4. Devolve decisions. Bushmen self-govern, but don't elect or submit to a coercive authority. By spreading responsibility laterally, trust emerges through constant but voluntary interaction. Facing finite supplies, people build resilience through incentives that empower and reward others on the team to do more with less.
5. Own shares. Executives may hold the deed to their office building, but they can't own the water flowing through their pipes. Bushmen can and do respect informal title to water resources. Given the human instinct to care for what you own, it may make sense to entrust people with water credits.
6. Encourage trade. Bushmen often truck, barter, and exchange water resource credits within their transparent network. Frugal and innovative individuals who can reduce their demand will expand resilience and efficiency for all.
7. Unlock monopolies. Bushmen are freer than the average CEO in the U.S. because they do not depend on one central monolithic entity for the source of their existence. The root of resilience is liberty to choose. Managers who loosen the rigid, brittle forces of monopoly can negotiate better terms for growth.
Even if the use of fossil fuels ended today, the mercury will keep rising. Managers can't control or hide from the climate's silent brutal force. Like Bushmen, they must learn to adapt to the rule of water.