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Lessons, challenges and opportunities highlighted at global water stewardship forum


The Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) held their first global forum in Edinburgh on 1 and 2 November. It was a fascinating couple of days highlighting the progress that has been made on water stewardship over the last ten years and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

What was clear is that the AWS Standard provides a credible and robust way to put water stewardship into action at the site level. It was great to hear the experiences of those that have been implementing the standard and positive to see that efforts are underway to explore how the wealth of data on catchment conditions they have collected can be shared. Having such data available will support others who want to implement the standard and the development of robust baselines against which the impact of water stewardship interventions in the catchment can be measured, essential to build the business case for further action.

Stakeholders visit the River NarStakeholders engaged in collective action on in River Nar, Norfolk visit the river. Greg Armfield. WWF-UK

Key themes that emerged across the week included the need to:

  • Build alignment between the AWS Standard with other standards, including the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), the Aquaculture Stewardship Council Standard, ISO Standards and Global Gap;
  • Support greater engagement of the agricultural sector;
  • Catalyse closer alignment with public sector water resource management.

Alignment of AWS with other standards

In early 2015, recognizing the water stewardship gaps in many of the key agricultural sustainability standards, WWF published a report looking at the issue. The report concluded that while some water issues were well covered, many others were not, and AWS offered a potential framework and pathway to help plug certain water stewardship gaps.

It was great to hear about early initiatives that are underway to test how this could work in practice, for example working with cotton growers in Australia to support alignment between BCI and AWS.

The need for alignment echoes one of the lessons learnt from WWF and M&S’s partnership on water – the benefit of building water stewardship into existing tools and processes across the business. M&S have used elements of the AWS standard to augment farm level standards that are already being used by suppliers, to help address catchment derived water risks in locations where water risk is high. To achieve the top rating against M&S’s sustainability framework suppliers in high risk geographies must be working collectively and proactively to sustainably manage shared water resources.

You can read more about the learning from the partnership on embedding water stewardship across a business in a new joint publication

Engagement of the agricultural sector

Globally the agricultural sector accounts for almost 70% of freshwater abstraction. For many companies the vast majority of their water use, impact and exposure to water risk will be in their agricultural supply chains. Engaging the agricultural sector on water stewardship is therefore essential, but progress has been slower than in other areas.

A number of suggestions were made for supporting greater uptake of the AWS standard by the agricultural sector. These included exploring the possibility for group of farmers located in the same catchment to work towards certification collectively and engaging farmers directly to share top level information on the standard tailored to the local context.

WWF South Africa’s work to pilot the standard with stone fruit farmers in the Western Cape has provided a good example of how the implementation of the standard with farmers can catalyse wider collective action to address the drivers of risk in the catchment (in this case clearing water thirsty alien invasive plant species and addressing sanitation issues from rapidly growing informal settlements).

As a result of this collective action the catchment management authority and national government have recognised the role that the private sector can play in supporting sustainable water management and are developing water stewardship policies with will help to scale up action.

Find out more about the work in the Western Cape

Multi stakeholder workshop in the Western CapeMulti stakeholder workshop in the Western Cape, South Africa. WWF

Alignment with the public sector

Water resources are in the main managed and regulated by the public sector. The public sector is therefore central to setting the context that determines water risks in any location.

Across the two days it was recognised that there is a need for water stewardship initiatives to better engage the public sector at all levels – catchment, regional and national. The private sector can play a key role in helping to build awareness of water as an economic risk as well and a social and environmental one, helping to gain traction with finance ministries and their investment in water resources management.

The United National Sustainable Development Goals and other multi-stakeholder initiatives offer a real opportunity to support greater engagement. They provide a framework to support the alignment of targets and initiatives to enable the private and public sector to work together more effectively to address shared water challenges and support sustainable management of water.

Business and public sector water roundtable in the UK Business and public sector water roundtable in the UK. WWF-UK

I left the conference heartened by the enthusiasm of those in the room and the strong community of global experts on water stewardship. There are of course challenges to be overcome to address the scale of water challenges we face. I am excited however to be working in one of the organisations supporting action globally to address the challenges and maximise the opportunities ahead.

Find out more about our water stewardship work can be found on our website or by contacting waterstewardship@wwf.org.uk

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