Why Water Stewardship Goes Beyond Managing Risk

This year's World Water Week left me with a greater appreciation for the complex challenges of addressing water scarcity and how companies are approaching water stewardship.

The diversity of the 2,000-plus attendees and the issues discussed reflect the complexity of the challenges in providing clean water to about 1 billion people who now have no access, and sanitation to about 2.5 billion people currently without access. At the same time, there is increasing competition for water.

My two key takeaways (there are others but these are the two that have shaped my thinking) from the event are:

• Increased competition for water is driven by economic and population growth
• From a business perspective, managing water risk alone is not water stewardship

The facts about the need for water to support economic and population growth are straightforward. The water risk and stewardship comments from the private sector put a fine point on a key issue in developing a water stewardship strategy.

In addressing increased competition for water it is easy to focus on improving water efficiency and water risk. Improving water efficiency and the associated value tracks similar to energy efficiency programs and can be well understood.  Essentially, improve how resources are used and financial savings typically follow.

Water risk evaluation is also relatively straightforward -- it starts with water footprinting and then considers the geographic location of water use (direct and indirect). Many companies have now started to look at water efficiency and water risk evaluations for their direct operations, and in some cases, they are examining indirect water use (supply chain) as well. However, it is too easy to stop here. Water stewardship moves well beyond water efficiency and water risk evaluations.

Businesses with leading water stewardship strategies clearly recognize that water stewardship is multifaceted and requires the management of a broad range of public policy and stakeholder issues in addition to technology and conservation efforts. And this is important to recognize -- engaging on public policy issues and proactive stakeholder engagement requires a different mindset than required to address improving water efficiency.

Central to water stewardship is successfully engaging with a wide range of stakeholders. The challenges in doing so and questions that must be addressed are: Who are these stakeholders? How do I successfully engage with them for mutual benefit?

The identification of stakeholders interested in working on projects within a watershed and then mapping out how best to collaborate is a real challenge for companies. These challenges center on how to best partner with other businesses within a watershed and businesses must address questions such as: What does collaboration look like? How are NGOs and the public sector brought into this dialog to ensure everyone has access to water needed for agricultural, commercial and domestic use, let alone ecosystem needs?

Increased competition for water presents an unprecedented opportunity for collaboration between the public and private sectors. We are seeing real progress as all parties seek to ensure access to a critical resource. 

Addressing this central challenge of engaging with other stakeholders to solve this increased competition for water, while promoting economic growth and providing clean water and sanitation to the world's population, is what World Water Week was in part about. Without this essential component, a water strategy is incomplete and potentially ineffective.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user NOAA Photo Library.