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What role should business play in managing water risk?

 

Having been excited about the prospect of attending my first World Water Week in Stockholm for months, it didn’t disappoint!

With the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Risk Report ranking ‘water crises’ as the number one risk to global sustainability, it was refreshing to hear leaders in the field be open about the challenges they have experienced, the lessons they have learnt and how we can use our collective experience to work together to address the significant water challenges we face.

What is the role of business was a question I heard time and again throughout the week. So – at the end of the week – what were the essential take homes?

The Water Stories photographic exhibition by Mustafah Abdulaziz in collaboration with WWF, WaterAid, EarthWatch and the HSBC Water Programme was on display at World Water Week. © Felix SwenssonThe Water Stories photographic exhibition by Mustafah Abdulaziz in collaboration with WWF, WaterAid, EarthWatch and the HSBC Water Programme was on display at World Water Week. © Felix Swensson

The global context – shared water risks

In parallel to the economic risks our freshwater environment is under threat. WWF’s 2014 Living Planet Index shows that populations of freshwater species have declined by 76 percent since 1970.  Some species, such as white-clawed crayfish have all but disappeared.

It’s the same issues causing economic risks that are responsible for the environmental ones – poor management of our rivers and lakes

So how do we respond to these risks? The upcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) present a real opportunity to support the step change required in the way we manage our water resources – with corporates having a key role to play.

The changing policy landscape – what are the Sustainable Development Goals?

Sustainable Development Goals have made the headlines in recent weeks and were a central topic of conversation at World Water Week, and for good reason. This month (I’ll call them SDG’s for short) the goals will be agreed and they’ll have a major impact on how the world’s governments approach the critical challenges of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and freshwater ecosystem conservation.

The shared nature of the risks has been recognised in the SDGs highlighting that the challenges affecting people, the planet and prosperity are interrelated and call for integrated solutions. Water is the perfect example of the integrated nature of the issues. WASH development efforts and freshwater conservation are mutually dependent. The inclusion of a dedicated water and sanitation SDG (Goal 6) sets out a previously missing framework for an integrated programme of action that recognises the interdependencies of WASH and freshwater ecosystems.

Business, governments and other key stakeholders will need to come together and work collectively if we stand any chance of reaching the targets and managing water risks.

Corporate attendance at World Water Week

The Water Stories photographic exhibition by Mustafah Abdulaziz in collaboration with WWF, WaterAid, EarthWatch and the HSBC Water Programme was on display at World Water Week. © Felix SwenssonThe Water Stories photographic exhibition by Mustafah Abdulaziz in collaboration with WWF, WaterAid, EarthWatch and the HSBC Water Programme was on display at World Water Week. © Felix Swensson

I was pleased to see a lot of faces from the business world at WWW – H&M, Gap, Coca-Cola, HSBC. These companies have recognised their water risks and are at various stages of responding and assessing how the changing policy landscape will affect their actions going forward.
Implementing the SDG’s will require a transformation in the way we collectively manage water. Businesses that want to engage are likely to face challenges:

  • Sceptism– there is likely to be a lack of public trust in the motivation of businesses advocating changes to water governance.
  • Lack of legitimacy – Businesses must have their own house in order before they can legitimately call for changes to governance.
  • Philanthropy vs management of corporate risk – philanthropic activities and funding will not address corporate water risks or support the development of the sustainable management of water.
  • Unintended consequences –   there is a need for water resources to be managed at a catchment or river basin scale to avoid possible damaging consequences of well-intentioned actions.

How can businesses overcome these challenges?

The Water Stories photographic exhibition by Mustafah Abdulaziz in collaboration with WWF, WaterAid, EarthWatch and the HSBC Water Programme was on display at World Water Week. © Felix SwenssonThe Water Stories photographic exhibition by Mustafah Abdulaziz in collaboration with WWF, WaterAid, EarthWatch and the HSBC Water Programme was on display at World Water Week. © Felix Swensson

The business role in supporting the implementation of the SDG’s

For years we’ve worked with the business community to improve the water environment. We believe they have an important role to play in supporting the implementation of the SDG’s.

The scope of corporate Water Stewardship (as we define it) aligns well to Goal 6, the Water and Sanitation SDG. If done responsibly, integrating private sector action into global policy frameworks and local implementation practices will make it possible for companies to overcome the challenges and contribute considerable resources and expertise to the achievement of the SDGs.

WWF’s Water Stewardship Ladder – setting out 5 steps to enable companies to respond to water risksWWF’s Water Stewardship Ladder – setting out 5 steps to enable companies to respond to water risks

The targets underpinning SDG6 are directly aligned with much of what companies must focus on to address their water-related risks and impacts.  Doing so however will require a company to shift from water management to stewardship – investing in sustainable water management beyond their “fence line” that benefits freshwater ecosystems and communities whilst also managing business risk.

Moving towards transformation – the need for collaboration

The scale of the challenge means that no one business, government or NGO can meet it alone. It’s been said before, but we must work together to really achieve something transformational – that is, managing water sustainably so that it meets the needs of people, nature and business.

Something I noted throughout the week was the need to scale up the work that’s already happening and act with more pace if we are going to tackle the growing water-related risks.

We work on water stewardship in a number of river basins, globally and here, closer to home. We have shown that by working with local government, the private sector and other stakeholders, vital improvements in water resource management can be achieved. After consulting companies, donors and investors ‘Water Stewardship Basin Strategies’ have been developed for 16 global river basins. Each is an exceptional ecosystem under growing pressure, increasing the risks for all users who depend on them.  WWF’s vision is for freshwater resources to be managed sustainably and equitably in each of these basins to enable thriving communities, businesses and healthy ecosystems.

WWF’s Water Stewardship Basin Strategies – in each of the 16 priority river basins we have consulted WWF’s Water Stewardship Basin Strategies – in each of the 16 priority river basins we have consulted companies, donors and investors and developed a strategy to overcome growing water risks.

Achieving sustainable water management – influencing the governance of water

The importance of strengthening the governance of water emerged as one of the recurring themes across the week. Joint advocacy by business and other key stakeholders such as NGOs can provide a strong voice for change. Working to influence the Governance of water will help to ensure that changes are sustainable over the longer term.

Businesses can support governments to improve the way water is managed for the benefit of all and, at the same time, apply pressure on those lagging companies who continue to exacerbate water risk. Strong water governance means reduced physical and reputational water risks for business, and a more stable, predictable regulatory landscape.

The SDG’s presents a real opportunity for a step change in the way we collectively manage water!

I finish with one of my favourite quotes from the conference: ‘Water is not a sector – it is a vital resource for people, communities and nature’

To ensure this resource is managed sustainably we need to work collectively and ensure that the lessons learnt are used to influence the governance of water bodies to ensure that the changes are locked in over the long term. Without sustainable management of water, we risk not only the delivery of Goal 6 but also undermine any chance to make progress throughout the rest of the SDG framework.

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