Collective action key on water, corporate leaders say

Collective action key on water, corporate leaders say

Global corporations must migrate toward a collectivist mindset to conserve the world’s water supply. That's the consensus that emerged from the World Water Week conference in Stockholm this week, according to reports from participants.

"Because water is so multifaceted, it’s too large an issue for one company or even one sector to tackle alone," wrote attendee Andre Fourie, head of Sustainable Development at SAB, the South African subsidiary of SABMiller, in a post for the Guardian this week. "There was a definite feeling around the table that partnership and collaboration is the right path, but questions do remain about how to structure that relationship."

The theme of this year’s conference, which brings together leaders of multinational corporations, academics and other industry experts, was water and food security -- a highly pertinent focus given that food prices have been on a skyward trajectory, due in part to intense droughts around the globe.

At the conference, Nestlé Chief Executive Officer Paul Bulcke encouraged governments to conceive "credible, cost-effective strategies" to address the world’s water calamities, but also underscored the need for businesses and other members of society to do their part in preserving water.

Bulcke also emphasized the need for minimal and targeted water consumption.

"Fresh water is being massively overused at nature’s expense, but it seems only a global crisis will make us realize the importance of the issue," he said. "Plants only need about 40 to 50 percent of the actual amount of water withdrawn for agriculture today, so there is still huge potential to make savings."

In order to alleviate their business risks associated with threats to water supply, some companies are already linking with nongovernmental groups to address the water crisis.

WWF International collaborates with various companies including SABMiller, Coca-Cola and H&M to address water risks, said Stuart Orr, the organization’s freshwater manager.

"We see our ultimate goal of protecting biodiversity and flows in rivers as very similar to business," said Orr. "We both need well managed systems to take risk away and ensure that sustainable water management serves the multiple needs of users, including the environment."

Image of orb of water provided by T-Design via Shutterstock

One of the highly anticipated web platforms, the Water Action Hub, launched at the conference reflects this need to take a collaborative approach to protecting the world’s water.

Developed by the United Nations Global Compact’s CEO Water Mandate in collaboration with several other groups, the interactive map allows businesses and other organizations to find water projects underway in river basins around the world, for potential collaboration with the groups already working on those projects. The International Business Leaders Forum also helped develop the platform, along with the Pacific Institute, Deloitte and GIZ on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

"There is a need for organized and readily accessible information to help businesses understand their options for collective action on water issues, particularly whom they can work with in a particular region of interest," said Gavin Power, deputy director of the UN Global Compact, and head of the CEO Water Mandate, in a statement.

A prototype of another web-based tool that premiered at the conference was developed by Water for People, an international nonprofit that works to improve water access and sanitation systems, and EffectiveUI, a company that designs digital applications. The platform, which will be available next year, will allow donors and others in the nonprofit community to view its work on the field, and not just its investments data.

"As companies increasingly view water as not just an environmental issue, but a complex driver of very real risks to their businesses, the appetite for better information on how to manage these risks and become good water stewards has grown substantially," said Anne-Leonore Boffi, Program Officer with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), and Ruth Mathews, Executive Director of the Water Footprint Network, in a blog post for the World Resources Institute.

"In fact, many organizations have put tremendous effort into developing tools and methodologies and compiling the best publicly available water information," they continued, "so that companies can manage their water use in sustainable, efficient, and equitable ways."

One company recognized for success with its water management was PepsiCo, which has improved its water efficiency by more than 20 percent since 2006, reaching its water goal four years ahead of schedule. It was honored with the Stockholm Industry Water Award for the strides it has made in water conservation.

"PepsiCo has set and achieved a high standard for its own operations, and has demonstrated that responsible water use makes good business sense," said Joppe Cramwinckel, director of Water Projects at the WBCSD, in a statement.

"The next step is to continue to communicate where each tool is best suited for water management, identify and fill any existing gaps in their functionality, and combine efforts wherever possible," concluded Boffi and Matthews. "By doing so, we hope to achieve our ultimate vision: to drive more sustainable and equitable water resource management across sectors."