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Making the Business Case for Water Stewardship


We know that companies face tough decisions every day about how and where to spend money to best safeguard future business and operations. We also know that there are lots of pieces to the sustainability jigsaw which all require time, investment and resources.

So how (and why) can you make the business case for investing in water stewardship?

Our global freshwater resources are in trouble, and water risks are everywhere. Consider the following:

  1. Agriculture uses 70% of our global freshwater resources [1].
  2. Demand for water is projected to grow by more than 55% by 2050 [2].
  3. Globally, 30% of our land is degraded and it costs the world US$300 billion annually [3].
  4. By 2030 almost half of the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress [4].
  5. WWF’s Living Planet Report 2016 shows that on average, the abundance of freshwater species populations has declined by 81% between 1970 and 2012.
© Brent Stirton / Getty ImagesLarge scale erosion forming a gully system around six metres deep. The cause of the erosion is over grazing due to goats and other livestock. The exposed bare earth is washed away forming the gully system. Deforestation in the Lake Bogoria area is a serious threat as it leads to a drop in the water table – therefore streams and swamps drying out, Kenya. © Brent Stirton / Getty Images

Water: vital to business

We often hear that ‘business is vital to the success of freshwater conservation’ but the truth is, freshwater conservation is vital to business. Until more businesses take action on water risks in their supply chains and operations, we’ll struggle to secure freshwater resources into the future for everyone. And those numbers I mentioned are only going to get worse.

So why does WWF work with business?

The most common threat to freshwater wildlife is habitat loss and degradation followed by overexploitation (find out more in our Living Planet Report 2016). Given our increasing consumption driving greater water use globally, and with agriculture being by far the biggest user of water, we believe that business action is key if we are to move to a more sustainable future.

Not only do we want to work with business to ensure they take sustainable action with conversation at its core, but also because business leverage is vital to achieving policy changes that will truly support our freshwater ecosystems so that people and nature can thrive. Businesses can leverage change through their supply chains around the world and influence local and national policy in these locations; business is a powerful motivator for change.

A European Otter (Lutra lutra) on Lake Windermere, Lake District, UK.A European Otter (Lutra lutra) on Lake Windermere, Lake District, UK. © Global Warming Images / WWF

And why should business take action?

  • Water consistently features in the top risks in terms of impact in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report, and has done for the last 4 years. In 2015, the water crisis was ranked as number one.
  • In CDP’s 2016 Water Report disclosing companies reported that water-related impacts cost business US$14 billion. It highlighted the vital role of water in carbon emission reductions: 24% of greenhouse gas emission reduction activities rely on a stable water supply, so water is vital in meeting commitments under the Paris Agreement.
  • Water plays an important role in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, not just through SDG Goal 6 but as an underpinning factor in the achievement of many other goals. Find out more from UN Water.
  • Water is a shared public good, so business use of water can impact on reputation and therefore sales and profits.
  • Population growth, climate change and changing consumption patterns place more pressure on our already stressed water resources. The global nature of the challenge makes it impossible for business, government or civil society to tackle it alone. Find out more in our Water Stewardship Briefing.

Water risk: physical, reputational and regulatory

When we talk about water risk, we’re actually talking about three elements of risk, and all three create financial risk to business. The diagram below explains these risks in terms of basin and company related risks.

Types of water risk. Taken from Water Stewardship 2013 Brief: Perspectives on business risks and responses to water challenges. © WWF – World Wide Fund For Nature (Formerly World Wildlife Fund), Gland, Switzerland. Types of water risk. Taken from Water Stewardship 2013 Brief: Perspectives on business risks and responses to water challenges. © WWF – World Wide Fund For Nature (Formerly World Wildlife Fund), Gland, Switzerland.

So what should you do?

The first step is understanding where water risks are in your operations and supply chains. Our Water Risk Filter is a great tool for helping you do this and my colleague Conor has written a blog about it which you can read here.

Our report, From Risks to Resilience, guides businesses through our water stewardship approach, with suggested actions along the way. Our partnership with M&S has focused on taking this approach, and we recently co-authored a report with some advice to business based on our joint experiences: The Water Stewardship Journey for Business. We’ve also got lots of resources on our WaterLIFE page, including guidance for the food and drink industry in England. If you need any more persuasion, take a look at my colleague Sarah’s blog on our recent consumer research.

If you’d like to find out more, or to talk about how WWF could help you take action to minimise the risk your business faces from water, get in touch with us at WaterStewardship@wwf.org.uk

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.


[1] Clay, J. (2004) World Agriculture and the Environment: A Commodity-by-Commodity Guide to Impacts and Practices Island Press

[2] OECD ENVIRONMENTAL OUTLOOK TO 2050: The Consequences of Inaction. Available at: http://www.oecd.org/env/indicators-modelling-outlooks/49910023.pdf.

[3] E. Nkonya et al. (eds.) 2016, Economics of Land Degradation and Improvement – A Global Assessment for Sustainable Development

[4] (OECD, 2008) IN WWF Living Planet Report 2014

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