How much water does it take to make development happen?

Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, posed that question to an audience of CEOs, government officials, entrepreneurs, and investors attending an international conference on water issues in New York last week.

At the event to moderate two panels on how various sectors are responding to the new business and policy context being shaped by water issues, I was struck by the largeness of his question: With our constant focus on the role of water as a basic human need, are we neglecting the equally important role of water in the development of our economy?

I’ve spent the last few years working with companies to develop their corporate water strategies, and I frequently reference water-scarcity maps such as those produced by the World Resources Institute to help companies prioritize conservation activities for facilities located around the world.

So it came as a surprise when Dr. Sachs suggested that these maps are “primitive.” They do illustrate the scope of water deprivation, but they fail to consider the many uses for water. Government policy, and increasingly the private sector, addresses the water-scarcity crisis as a problem related to only one use of water—for drinking. But let’s say that one day we actually do provide access for the 1.2 billion people on the planet who currently do not enjoy this basic human right. Are we done?

Unfortunately, not by a long shot. These people—and indeed the rest of the world—also need food, shelter, transportation, energy, and a host of other products that will enable them to live and prosper. All of which require water.

And where is the map for that?