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A corporate water strategy manifesto: We can and will do better

The statistics on water scarcity, poor quality, inequity and lack of access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene remain appalling and unacceptable.

wall of water


We have decided to craft this brief manifesto to challenge the status quo, accelerate innovation, solve wicked water problems and achieve United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, "Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all."

The pandemic has strengthened our resolve to do better.

Our observations and point of view for 2020 so far are:

  • The pandemic has been an accelerator of trends, such as the digital transformation of the water sector, attention on lack of access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, and the appalling underinvestment in water infrastructure in the U.S. and globally.
  • The recent interest and commitment to water pledges has diverted scarce resources and funds from actions such as watershed conservation and protection, reuse, technology innovation and adoption, public policy innovation, etc.
  • The corporate sector has too narrow of a view of the opportunities to solve wicked water challenges.
  • We no longer can be silent on the tradeoff between pledges versus actions. The belief that more of the same is unacceptable.

We also believe that scale of investment in solving wicked water problems is grossly inadequate, whether at the watershed level, supply chain, operations or engagement on public policy and with civil society.

The statistics on water scarcity, poor quality, inequity and lack of access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene remain appalling and unacceptable.

We held these beliefs before the pandemic, which have only accelerated this year and prompted us to share our view. Most important, the statistics on water scarcity, poor quality, inequity and lack of access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene remain appalling and unacceptable. For example:

  • About 4 billion people, representing nearly two-thirds of the world population, experience severe water scarcity during at least one month of the year (Mekonnen and Hoekstra, 2016).
  • 700 million people worldwide could be displaced by intense water scarcity by 2030 (Global Water Institute, 2013).
  • Globally, it is likely that over 80 percent of wastewater is released to the environment without adequate treatment (UNESCO, 2017).
  • The World Resources Institute has revised its predictions of the water supply-demand deficit to 56 percent by 2030.

Our intention is not to offend or not acknowledge the work done to date by those dedicated to solving water.

Instead, it is to push all of us towards doing better together, not more of the same. All of us means the private sector, governments and civil society (community groups, NGOs, labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations and foundations).

None of us is doing the job required fast enough. We realize this is hard, complex work and that your efforts are important.

We do believe the answers exist but not the fortitude to take on big water risks and make the necessary investments.

So, consider the questions below and let’s do more, invest more and scale efficient and effective solutions. Less talk, more action.

For businesses:

  • Is sustainability and water stewardship integrated into your business or is it a fringe activity from a sustainability, corporate social responsibility or water team? Does it support your business strategy? If the answer is no, your efforts will be underfunded and understaffed because they, at best, create partial business value.
  • How many "non-sustainability" colleagues from other areas of your business participated in sustainability or water-related conferences/webinars over the last five years? If not many, see the question above.
  • Do you have a water replenishment/balance/neutrality/positive goal?
    • If yes, why, and do you believe these goals actually solve water problems at scale and speed to have an impact? Did you commit to these goals because your competitors have done so, for communications, or to drive the needed improvements at the local level?
    • Is your goal designed to improve access to water and sanitation for everyone at a very local level? Asked another way, in five or 10 years when you claim success, will you have really improved water security in that basin?
    • Can you more effectively use your resources to improve water policies or leverage resources by working collaboratively with others?
  • Water is not carbon, it isn’t fungible and as a result, achieving water-neutral or water-positive goals can be misaligned with watershed impacts. We believe these kinds of goals are complex and can lead to chasing numbers that may not yield the desired business, environmental and community benefits. See WWF for important considerations before developing and issuing them.

For all:

  • Are the pledges, memberships and carefully worded water stewardship statements and goals on path to produce the necessary long-term results? Do we really need more private-sector pledges? How about fewer pledges, more actions?
  • In the last five years, from all the water conferences you attended, how many ideas did you take back and implement? Why not take those travel dollars you’re saving in 2020 and what you’ll save in the future because you found new ways to work and invest in actions with others at the basin level? We believe in learning by doing.
  • When did you last talk with a government agency in charge of water or wastewater about improving policies (allocations, cost of water, enforcement of water quality standards, development, tax dollars for green and grey infrastructure, etc.)? We believe improving water-related policies is the ultimate prize, and we need to start taking action, now.
  • How much time do you spend on positioning your organization as a water stewardship leader? Too often, we sustainability professionals at NGOs, businesses and trade organizations get bogged down with labor-intensive marketing and communication efforts instead of focusing on execution. Let your actions speak for themselves.

The bottom line: Less talk, more action and investment.

Let’s recommit and focus so we can solve water in our lifetime. It is possible.

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