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Why corporate water management needs to change

<p>Blame tunnel vision for practices that fail to address growing water scarcity. Here&#39;s the antidote to business as usual.</p>

It’s safe to say I know a few things about water. I’m in my third decade working at one of the world’s leading industrial water solutions companies. I’ve provided counsel to some of the biggest water users on the planet and have led corporate initiatives to reduce our own water consumption. But I’m starting to realize that I haven’t been thinking broadly enough.

For most of my career, I’ve helped companies reduce water use and improve water quality. The business drivers have been what you would expect: achieving regulatory compliance, increasing efficiency and reducing costs. Water management strictly has been a “within the fences” concern.

And I’ve seen dramatic results within those fences. Many of our customers have saved millions of gallons of water through enhanced monitoring, efficiency, recycling and reuse. Water savings of that magnitude can equate to significant cost savings, and we’ve been successful in measuring and communicating that return on investment to grow our business.

But I am realizing that even with all the progress that’s been made, it’s not enough. Water scarcity is increasing on every continent. Around the world, demand for fresh water is exceeding population growth by a factor of two. Approximately 1.2 billion people already live in areas of water scarcity, and that number could grow to two-thirds of the world’s population as early as 2025.

The Carbon Disclosure Project’s Global Water Report 2012 stated that “business as usual” water management practices will put at risk 45 percent of the projected global GDP in 2050, which is about 1.5 times the size of our current global economy. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2013 placed water scarcity among the top four global risks, in terms of likelihood and greatest impact – ranking ahead of issues such as food shortages, terrorism and climate change. And water scarcity is already constraining the growth plans of many companies that desire to expand in emerging markets.

Image of water droplet from Mariscina Vescio via Flickr.

So what needs to change? The fundamental flaw in our historic approach to water management is that we’ve had tunnel vision. We’ve ignored water issues that did not directly affect our business or bottom line. We’ve neglected to acknowledge that water is a shared resource with complex connections to energy, food, culture, safety and health.

Fortunately, the tide is turning. Leading nongovernmental organizations and multinationals are recognizing that global water challenges demand collaborative solutions. New, holistic standards are being developed and deployed to provide the clarity and accountability that companies of all sizes need to be successful in this new paradigm.

Like many others, I am moving from a focus on “water management” to “water stewardship,” a concept that incorporates a commitment to a broader section of stakeholders across an organization’s value chain. Good water stewardship isn’t just about reducing water costs. It's about doing the work needed to understand how your organization’s activities impact water availability and quality outside your corporate boundaries. Water is a community resource, and business does not operate in isolation. Continued access to adequate clean water supplies is critical to the long-term viability of every business.

Last year, Ecolab joined forces with the World Wildlife Fund and Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) to assist in the development of the AWS International Water Stewardship Standard. The Standard encourages water use that is socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial, and provides a clear set of guidelines for how water should be managed at both a site and watershed level.

At a site level, organizations must adopt water management best practices within their direct range of influence – something most businesses understand well. The Standard also requires those organizations to look beyond their property boundaries to actively engage with stakeholders in their water catchment. That’s where most businesses aren’t so comfortable. The Standard provides guidance through this unfamiliar territory by outlining what “good” looks like.

Specifically, organizations that apply for the Standard must inform their regional authority of their plans to contribute to the water stewardship objectives of that community. Applicants also must obtain broad consensus for their water stewardship plans from all relevant stakeholders.

The Standard provides important checks and balances for action and accountability by requiring organizations to participate in creating industry or sector benchmarks for water performance. In addition, applicants must contact their suppliers (regardless of location) to request they take actions that will advance the desired water stewardship outcomes of the applicant’s community.

Participating in the development of the Standard has brought to light the importance of looking beyond a company’s physical boundaries to confront external water risks and opportunities. Ecolab is now advancing a collaborative water stewardship platform that looks across our footprint, value chain and communities to focus on where we can have the most impact, which in our case comes in the form of helping our customers leverage the Standard within their own operations.

The United Nations designated 2013 as the International Year of Water Stewardship. As sustainability leaders in our organizations, we need to reframe water management as an opportunity for cooperative problem solving and action. If we evolve our mindset, we can build the kind of collaborative solutions that will enable the continued growth and success of our businesses, and ensure a brighter future for our communities.

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