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Joining the Dots on Water Stewardship


“It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” (unknown)

We all need water, we all use water, but we can only protect water and our rivers by working together. Our new Water Stewardship Service is a way for business to support this. Read on to find out more.

In the UK, every person uses approximately 150 litres of water a day, a figure that has been growing every year by 1% since 1930 (Waterwise, 2012). But if you also consider the amount of water needed to produce the food and products we consume daily (the embedded water) we actually consume about 3400 litres a day, of which about 65% comes from food production (Waterwise, 2012).

This is alarming particularly when nearly 25% of England’s rivers and aquifers are at risk of over abstraction (WWF, 2017) and when you consider that the UK has less available water per person than most other European countries. It’s worse in the South East and East of England which are the most water stressed (London has less water available per person than Istanbul) and these are key agriculture areas and home to many of our iconic chalk streams.

Over the last 60 years, rapid population growth, urbanisation and increasing demand for cheap food have damaged our natural river systems, creating problems such as pollution, over abstraction, increased flood risk and soil erosion.  These problems will only get worse with climate change and our wetter warmer winters and hotter drier summers.

Bassenthwaite lake and flooded farmland near Keswick, UK © Global Warming Images / WWFBassenthwaite lake and flooded farmland near Keswick, UK © Global Warming Images / WWF

These issues affect us all, and they are increasing the risks to business. This can be directly through flood damage, or increased bills. Or indirectly, through escalating costs of food caused by a loss of pollinators and soil or disruption to supply chains.  These are all risks that according to the recently published Committee on Climate change report  will certainly get worse over the coming years, so we need to prepare.

As Kathy said in her recent blog “we often hear that business is vital to the success of freshwater conservation but the truth is, freshwater conservation is vital to business”. In 2015 CDP’s Global Water Report highlighted that ‘two thirds of the world’s largest companies are reporting exposure to water risks, some of which have potential to limit growth’. Whilst the World Economic  Forum considers the water crises to be the single most impactful risk facing the world today.

The relationships between water, soil, wildlife and society are complex. But delivering healthy river systems provides a common framework for addressing our shared risks at a manageable scale. At the Rivers Trust we say that “where there’s water, there’s life” because the health of our rivers is an indicator of the health of the wider environment. Put simply, if we manage our rivers so they’re healthy, large parts of our environment will be too and the various ‘ecosystem services’ that communities and businesses rely on, will be more resilient.

The solutions aren’t easy, but embracing water stewardship principles and taking a catchment-wide collaborative approach to water management allows everyone with an interest to be part of the solution: government agencies, water companies, businesses, environmental NGOs, community groups, landowners and farmers all benefit from our rivers and they need to work together to agree priorities and develop solutions.

This collaborative approach can lead to benefits and cost savings for all. For example, planting woodland or restoring wetland to increase biodiversity could also protect communities downstream from flooding, prevent drinking water pollution, reduce soil loss from farmland (a significant problem in England) and increase resilience to drought, but the dots need to be carefully joined up to make it work and maximise the benefits. If funding these measures is shared between all water users, the work becomes more affordable.

Left: Soil run off from a farm in the Wye Valley © Wye and Usk Foundation Right: Satellite shot which was taken 2 days after the shot above which shows the extent of soil run off. Note the soil plume coming from the Severn estuary…Left: Soil run off from a farm in the Wye Valley © Wye and Usk Foundation Right: Satellite shot which was taken 2 days after the shot to the left which shows the extent of soil run off. Note the soil plume coming from the Severn estuary…

Standing on the shoulders of giants

None of this is new. The struggle to find a balance between cultivation and conservation is as old as Cain and Able. Able opposed the ploughing of soil by Cain’s followers because deforestation was disturbing the hydrological balance. England’s first environmental law on water pollution was passed in 1388, making it illegal to dispose of animal waste, dung and litter in rivers, because of the impact on those downstream, and the idea of Environmental Stewardship has been around since the 1880’s.

However the concept of Water Stewardship “the use of water in ways that are socially equitable, environmentally sustainable, and economically beneficial is relatively new, driven largely by a growing awareness amongst business of water-related risks. There is a plethora of tools and strategies available to help business become good water stewards and there many businesses in the UK and elsewhere who are already adopting water stewardship practices.

But no matter how good these initiatives are, and many are fantastic, they are can’t individually address the scale of the challenge. Businesses need to collaborate, coordinate and work with those who have similar ambitions in order to have any real impact. For example, a business might reduce the amount of water it uses on site and protect its factories from flooding.  But these actions will only have limited benefits if the roads, which their staff use to getting to work, are impassable due to flooding or their water supply is restricted due to competition or pollution up stream. Moreover, the water saved will only benefit the environment if policies are in place to ensure sufficient water remains in the rivers. Addressing these challenges requires collective, coordinated action at a catchment scale.

Cows drink from the River Derwent by Kirkham Priory © Sarah WadeCows drink from the River Derwent by Kirkham Priory © Sarah Wade

New solutions for business

Luckily, in the UK, we already have an established network, supported by Government policy, for delivering water stewardship and collective action through the Catchment Based Approach (CaBA).

The CaBA is a community led approach that engages people and groups from across society to help improve our precious water environments. There are now over 108 catchment partnerships covering every part of the England and Wales.  Many CaBA partnerships are hosted by the Rivers Trusts or Wildlife Trusts and there are others, but they all bring local knowledge and expertise to addressing the particular issues within a catchment. There are now over 1500 organisations involved with CaBA partnerships including Government agencies, Water Companies, Farming groups, Landowners, NGOs and Academia.

To make the most of this amazing network WWF-UK and The Rivers Trust, with support from M&S and Coca-Cola have developed a new Water Stewardship Service to help businesses both work together, and with CaBA partners to help deliver sustainable solutions for water.

The service will provide solutions to those businesses who want to address the water risks within their supply chains by facilitating targeted collective action within areas at risk of diffuse pollution or over-abstraction and in turn build resilience within supply chains and benefits to local communities.

If you’d like to find out more about how the Water Stewardship Service could help your business, get in touch with Alex Adam at The Rivers Trust (alex@theriverstrust.org.)

You can find out more on the Rivers Trust website and there are more resources available on WWF’s water stewardship page.

WWF is building a future where people and nature thrive by helping businesses work in ways that protect the natural world they depend on. Subscribe to our One Planet Business newsletter for updates and inspiration on corporate sustainability.

Waterwise, 2012. Water – The Facts, why do we need to think about water?

WWF UK, 2017. Water For Wildlife, Tackling Drought and Unsustainable Abstraction

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