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Reflections from the Alliance for Water Stewardship Forum 2017


The Alliance for Water Stewardship forum in Edinburgh has just finished. It’s only in its second year but feels like a meeting that’s gathering momentum and it would be great to see it continue. There were many interesting sessions and discussions, including the launch of a new WWF report looking at how well agricultural sustainability standards cover water stewardship.

Learning from the ‘not-so-usual-suspects’

A session that stood out for me was one looking at emerging sectors for water stewardship, including healthcare, hotels, golf, mining, and industrial parks. Throughout the two days there was a strong emphasis on agriculture and industry, with many of the case studies discussed from large-scale, high water using and highly polluting sectors. But, the ‘not-so-usual-suspects’, represented by these emerging water stewards have an important and often neglected role to play. On a catchment or basin scale they may not be big water users or gross polluters, but they can have important dependencies on water and can be influential in supporting the system scale change needed to deliver sustainable water management.

A common roach: a freshwater fish native to most of Europe and Western Asia © myfrozenlife / Flikr Creative CommonsA common roach: a freshwater fish native to most of Europe and Western Asia and shown to be affected by oestrogenic substances in sewage © myfrozenlife / Flikr Creative Commons

NHS Highland gave a great example of the interplay between pharmaceutical use, water pollution and health, and what NHS Highland is doing to address this issue. Active ingredients and metabolites from prescriptions end up in our rivers via the sewerage system. Pharmaceuticals in freshwaters can have subtle and not easily detectable effects on species’ reproductive rates, development or behaviour, leading to population declines. But it’s not just the effect on ecosystems that is a concern for NHS Highland: as a healthcare organisation they are concerned with the health effects of pollution from pharmaceuticals on the population they serve and are starting to take environmental impacts into account in drug choices when the clinical outcomes aren’t compromised. This nexus between ecosystems and human health is something that has been of personal interest to me for some time. As a large, highly regarded, institution across the UK which reaches almost everybody at some point in their lives, it would be great to see some of this thinking extending to the NHS in other parts of the UK and, recognising these links between ecosystem health and human health, their influence being brought to bear on water stewardship initiatives.

Striking a personal chord…

Exploring the King's River (a headwater of the River Suir) in St. Johnstown, Tipperary © Conor LinsteadAuthor and son exploring the King’s River (a headwater of the River Suir) in St. Johnstown, Tipperary © Conor Linstead

Another talk that was close to my heart was given by ABP Cahir from Ireland: I grew up in the upper part of same catchment and playing in the river as a young lad is probably the reason I ended up working on rivers as a profession. ABP Cahir have been exemplary in how they are addressing their impacts from their site in Cahir: they were the first food processor in Europe to achieve Gold status of the European Water Stewardship standard, and the River Suir which flows by their factory is at Good Ecological Status. But, upstream, several of the tributaries are not in good shape and over the years I’ve noticed a steady decline in the river I once played in, which is now at Poor Ecological Status. Much of the reason for this decline is pollution from agriculture: very possibly some of the same farmers (my neighbours!) that are supplying to ABP Cahir. Often this is just down to farmers not being aware of the impact they are having and some of the simple things they can do to address it. For me, the next step for leaders like ABP Cahir is to use their experience of water stewardship and their influence to support local farmers in the wider catchment (whether in their supply chain or not) to reduce their impact on the river we all love.

These are just a couple of examples of presentations at the AWS Forum that struck a personal chord with me, but both of them serve to underline a general point about the importance of sectors that are not big water users, or big polluters in the scheme of things, getting involved in water stewardship. These businesses still have dependencies on water and water risks, and have a critical role to play in influencing their wider organisations, supply chains, or neighbours to deliver change.

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