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Traveling to the future of water conservation & resilience

Taking action to reduce freshwater use and build water resilience

10-minute read

November 21, 2023

Without a doubt, water scarcity and resilience is one of the great challenges of our time. As continued population growth and industrialization increase global water demand, a massive strain is being placed on natural water sources. 25 countries (nearly one-quarter of the global population) face very high annual water stress.1 It’s no wonder that water resilience is one of the 5 areas of action critical to the UN Global Compact’s Forward Faster initiative. To put it simply, the conservation of the world’s water resources has never been a more crucial topic. 

I see a clear imperative for Travel and Tourism (T&T) businesses to prioritize water-related topics, especially in areas of high water stress. To be clear, T&T consumes a moderate amount of water compared to other industries. According to a new report published by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) and Accenture, T&T uses about 3.5-5.8% of global freshwater. Yet, T&T is one of the fastest growing economic sectors and is heavily dependent on water for many tourism services and tourism products, like hotels and restaurants.

There is definitely a space, and an imperative, to take action. By following key recommendations, using the WTTC and Accenture’s Water Management Action Framework as a guide, T&T can achieve multiple benefits while decreasing their water usage and helping to protect and restore water ecosystems.

Reporting and risk management

The effects of climate change — and the related risks — for T&T organizations cannot be overstated. T&T organizations are facing a growing list of risks, both physical (for example, from increased water scarcity during peak travel seasons) and transition-related (namely, from more stringent regulatory frameworks and new water efficiency measures). Failing to recognize or manage these risks could have a significant impact, leading to higher costs, stakeholders losing confidence in a business and even diminished tourist activity.

These challenges are not insurmountable. Sustainability reporting helps to create the transparency and visibility that can guide actions to manage these risks — and to turn these risks from a threat to an advantage.

Like most other companies, T&T organizations are having to meet increasingly stringent new reporting requirements around water usage. With new sustainability reporting regulations on the horizon, particularly in Europe, T&T organizations should take advantage of the relevant aspects of these regulations. This will help them to provide clear information about their water usage and clarify potential benefits.

The European Sustainability Reporting Standards (ESRS) are part of the EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD). These standards provide guidance on various water-related aspects, including water sources, water discharge location, and the water stress status of a location. Companies can simplify their reporting process by adhering to the CSRD's mandatory 'double materiality' principle. This principle requires them to report on both how their business is influenced by sustainability and how their activities impact society and the environment. By conducting an assessment and disclosing their environmental and social impacts, companies can fulfill this requirement. Further, they can identify water-related risks and opportunities to create greater value for their businesses.

As part of its ESG strategic framework, Hilton Hotels wants to cut water use intensity by 50% by 2030. The company not only installs energy and water-efficient appliances but also records its water data in LightStay, its ESG management platform. This platform enables the company to measure, manage, and report the environmental and social impact of its hotels worldwide. Since 2009, these efforts have resulted in cumulative savings of over US$1.38 billion in energy, water, and waste costs. Notably, the company achieved a 33.4% reduction in water usage per square meter in 2022.2

A framework for success

While most T&T organizations are committed to becoming more water-conscious and prioritizing water conservation, it can be hard to know exactly where to start. As there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to understanding critical water issues and taking action, having access to a framework can be a major asset. Accenture has partnered with WTTC to develop the Water Management Action Framework, a structured approach designed to complement the T&T sector‘s efforts to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by unlocking synergies and value from shifting towards circular and regenerative practices.

Here’s a quick summary of the four-step approach – one that starts with assessment, builds capability, drives action and enables reporting and sharing data:

  1. Assess and Define: To kickstart their activities, T&T organizations should begin by assessing and defining their relationship with nature. This involves understanding their intersection with the environment and evaluating the dependencies and impacts related to water across their operations. It is crucial to assess and prioritize risks and opportunities related to water. Additionally, setting and disclosing water targets, as well as developing a plan for reducing water usage and building resilience, are essential steps to take. 

  2. Build and Enable: T&T organizations should also establish a clear governance structure and create the capacity to achieve water targets. This can be done through communicating the benefits of becoming water conscious across the organization, mobilizing the workforce to set water sustainability objectives (while implementing critical training and development) and leveraging data insights to build water intelligence capabilities into their operations and help ensure they are implementing the most effective water conservation practices.    

  3. Execute and Collaborate: Further, to become water-conscious organizations while driving water excellence across supply chains and water basins, companies can implement sustainable practices, including installing low-flow fixtures, opting for push button or sensor taps and showers, and implementing sustainable landscaping practices such as planting native and drought-tolerant plants. They should also encourage behavioral changes and develop supplier codes of conduct. Further, it will be essential to engage in collective action with stakeholders on water management, especially through public-private partnerships. 

  4. Report and Monitor: Finally, companies will need to closely assess and communicate progress, to provide stakeholders with reliable and relevant information on water targets, risks and opportunities. This should involve establishing monitoring and reporting mechanisms while identifying water-related data points. T&T organizations should also conduct joint efforts across the entire value chain to collect and share accurate water-related data.

Every plan for water conservation and resilience will be different, but I would encourage you to review the full WTTC report for more details, and to understand what good looks like from your industry peers.

Digital technologies to the fore

I’m excited about the potential of technology, as I truly believe key innovations can help T&T organizations go so much further than ever before in water conservation. From more effectively analyzing water usage across their operations, to driving water excellence across supply chains and water basins, some of these technologies will be essential to T&T organizations in the years ahead.

For example, artificial intelligence (AI), especially Generative AI, can help analyze key data to predict water demand in specific locations and time periods, improve water conservation efforts and build water resilience. This could prove essential in the near future, especially as travel to water-stressed destinations continues to grow, such as in island nations and destinations where the tourism season coincides with the driest months3. Similarly, cloud-based water management software will prove useful in tracking water use across multiple locations. Having a single source of truth allows organizations to overcome water accounting challenges, track compliance and help ensure businesses can track progress toward their water-related targets.

Virtual reality and the Metaverse could also make their mark. By creating immersive experiences in a virtual space, these innovations could be a useful tool for T&T organizations, especially in providing travelers with virtual experiences that educate them about vulnerable water basins and how to reduce water usage while vacationing in stressed areas. These technologies also offer a platform to raise awareness about water management and inspire behavioral change among the workforce, an essential element that T&T organizations should embed in their business and instill in customers.

And a host of other key technologies, including smart sensors and IoT, digital twins and earth observation via satellite data, will help monitor water quality and use, assess water vulnerabilities through digital models and even facilitate the creation of new markets for water-related assets.

Using leading-edge technologies to improve how water is managed can maximize business value alongside water security and ultimately lead to new opportunities for T&T organizations.

Toward a sustainable water future

It is clear that the world is going through a major water crisis, one that requires immediate action from industries and individuals alike. And although the T&T sector currently only has a modest impact on global water usage, the sector can have a major impact on water conservation by clarifying their water usage, planning with the intent to excel and inspire (with an emphasis on fostering cross-sector and cross-industry collaboration in water basins), and making use of leading-edge technologies to push the limits of water management and customer and employee education.

As they follow the above steps, T&T organizations will decrease their water usage and create water resilience, helping ensure they comply with emerging regulations and monitoring frameworks while identifying new opportunities in the process. They will gain the trust of stakeholders and inspire customers and travelers to act sustainably as they voyage. And they will help protect and restore water ecosystems and increase water security for people around the world.


Dr. Jesko-Philipp Neuenburg

Managing Director – Global Travel & Aviation Sustainability Lead