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Beer giant AB InBev's former water guru offers some advice

After a year of rest and reflection and observing water happenings from the outside, I’d like to offer some thoughts on water stewardship — my view from being on the inside for more than 30 years.

Whether the corporation or organization we’re operating in understands it, managing water risks using a stewardship approach is like managing your health. If you wanted to improve your health, you might start by seeing your doctor for a check-up, blood work and to establish a plan. Maybe you’d work on exercise, managing stress and getting more sleep — a portfolio approach that would improve many aspects of your health for the long term. You might have a heart problem that requires a fancy drug, but it would be foolish not to think holistically and take care of stress and basic health at the same time. Systematic thinking achieves the best, most efficient long-term results, while individual intervention, at the local watershed level, is often necessary.

There’s no single definition of "water stewardship." My view is that it is something to be continually strived for, not something that can be simply achieved, and I’d challenge any company that claims to have achieved it.  When the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) talks about stewardship, it uses the words progression, improvement, direct operations, value chain and commitment. The Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER) states that its members are aiming to continually improve and to act, engage and influence on matters related to water stewardship. Much like our health, we can’t simply lose weight or apply an intervention and declare we’ve achieved "health." We must continue to eat well, exercise and maintain ourselves if we’re to stay healthy.

The bottom line is we all need to talk less, act more and work together — quicker, more efficiently and to scale.

Water issues are complex, and tons of books, articles, certification guidelines and conferences focus on what needs to be done. This is good work, but much of it falls short on how to move forward in a practical, efficient manner. We need more pragmatic thinking that generates real-world results. I’ve seen the same case studies for years, examples that are force-fitted into different guidance documents, over and over again. The bottom line is we all need to talk less, act more and work together — quicker, more efficiently and to scale.

In that spirit, here are some tips for advancing water stewardship, whether you work for an NGO, company, consultant or government. 

Tips for companies

  • Put actions before words  Don’t look for quick fixes or marketing-based solutions. Do your homework because this is a long haul that requires a lot of learning. Real actions that manage water risks will pay long-term dividends for the business and surrounding communities.
  • Don’t wait for the perfect formula on true cost or valuation — There is enough high-level data from the watershed doctors on current and projected risks that proves action is needed, now. More calories taken in than burned will mean weight gain, just like more water used than recharged or more pollution discharged than can be assimilated means increased risks for everyone in that watershed. If you believe water is key to your business and the communities that surround your facilities or areas where you source your raw materials, start taking action.
  • Seek alignment from the top and integrate — At AB InBev, our culture allowed (even encouraged) risk-taking with the understanding that our business, including our supply chain, depended on clean, available water. This understanding started with the CEO and C-suite with support from the company’s engaged board. The sustainability team was given the mandate to work with colleagues across business functions and hold everyone accountable for very specific actions that were components of water stewardship —  from the global level to country-level to individual breweries to colleagues who worked with individual barley growers. Not every company has this enabling culture, so water leads may have to drive stewardship themselves in order to execute meaningful actions at the watershed level.
  • Roll up your sleeves and do the work — Water risk assessments start as paper exercises, but most learning is done by getting out of your office and into water-stressed areas to talk with local stakeholders.  Only then will you understand if the issues are severe and what could be done to manage them, who the players are and with whom you might be able to work. AB InBev’s global watershed goal required operations in water-stressed areas to engage with their local stakeholders and develop action plans to improve water management. When you get out into the watershed and talk with stakeholders, good things happen.
  • Empower local colleagues with specific water stewardship tasks — Global employees working on water stewardship should fulfill their role as subject matter experts, evangelists, catalysts and facilitators and let local teams lead water stewardship efforts in their watersheds. They know the language, culture and how to work with local stakeholders. Don’t miss this opportunity to multiply your capacity by turning local teams into formal or informal stewards. At AB InBev, we shared personal achievement targets tied to the company’s public global water goals. Our targets were linked to our compensation, and while we were accountable for different pieces of the puzzle, we all had skin in the game and worked together to achieve our goals.
  • Find allies in procurement and other areas that control the supply chain Procurement and other groups are critical because they have the relationships and processes to engage the supply chain on water stewardship issues. This is especially important if you’re in the food and beverage sector or any sector that has a water intensive supply chain. If your culture isn’t integration friendly, you must find allies and build momentum that will lead to small wins, then big wins. If you can achieve integration, formalize the alignment by setting shared targets, and building out communication channels and an ongoing measurement and reporting system.
  • Align to Sustainable Development Goal 6, "Ensure access to water and sanitation for all" — Performance on SDG 6 is intrinsically linked to, and can positively influence, more than half of the 17 SDG Goals, from no poverty to good health and well-being to quality education and economic growth. Many other positive impacts will be realized by focusing on water issues. This is a rising tide that lifts all boats, just like when we improve our health, we may be happier, feel better, see relationship improvement or work productivity gains.
  • Have patience with your NGO partners — NGO teams are usually underpaid and overworked, but they are trying to think long term about problems that can only be solved by long-term thinking. They’re invaluable to helping companies build relationships and credibility, and most important, address the issues.

Tips for NGOs

  • Think and act more like companies  Like your business supporters, be accountable and use a disciplined approach, which means setting goals, measuring and reporting progress regularly to your stakeholders and keeping projects on time and on or under budget.
  • Seek sustainable sources of funding — Company dollars are not infinite so don’t over-rely on them.  Companies usually aren’t the highest water users in a watershed, even though they may be the most noticed and an easy target for criticism. Sustainable funding for watershed projects comes from a balanced approach that includes improved water policy and using existing resources
  • Have patience with companies — It’s hard for companies that are tied to quarterly reporting to think long term, and your contacts face many internal challenges. 

Tips for everyone

  • Look to agriculture — From my numerous visits to breweries and barley-growing regions in water-stressed areas, I generally found the biggest opportunity to be improving practices in agriculture, usually the largest water user. Not only are there big opportunities for improved performance in water management, but also in yields, quality and long-term soil health. 
  • Look to improve water policy — This will be difficult, but if we’re to really solve problems and manage water risks, water policy must be improved. Water policy means development and enforcement of allocation and discharge rules, charging users for a truer cost of water and using those funds for water projects, including fixing leaks and other infrastructure issues.
  • Don’t underestimate the role of technology  — Driverless cars, using Watson to help cure cancer … technology will make a difference in solving the world’s water issues as well, especially in water reuse. Looking at what Israel has done with efficient irrigation, wastewater reuse and desalinization shows it’s possible. There is much new exploration already under way, and we must encourage and support these projects, from startup to scale. 

Finally, some resources

  • The CEO Water Mandate’s definition of water stewardship (and other helpful tools) and its Six Principles (PDF).
  • BIER, a group of companies whose direct operations and supply chains depend on clean, available water, has published a very handy stewardship framework, including Six Principles of Water Stewardship. Within each principle are descriptions of potential action items. 
  • The World Wildlife Fund offers businesses very practical and useful guidance on how to structure a water stewardship program in its easy-to-read "Perspectives on Business Risks and Responses to Water Challenges (PDF)."
  • The Alliance for Water Stewardship’s (AWS) definition of water stewardship. I’m not a fan of certifications because there may be more efficient paths to stewardship. But, the AWS work contains the necessary components to develop a water stewardship program using a logical approach. 

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