WWF-UK’s Freshwater Specialist, Conor Linstead tells his account of the water issues being faced and solutions being taken by us in Kanpur and Lahore from his recent visit to India.
The idea that businesses are at growing risk from water problems, and not just having an impact on water, is a relatively new idea but one that has gained a lot of momentum over the last few years. Businesses have come to realise that water resources are not unlimited, and problems related to water scarcity have started to bite some where it hurts – in the bottom line.
Ensuring our rivers continue to flow with clean water is vital for species and ecosystems but also for businesses too. For this reason, here we believe that businesses have a role to play in keeping our rivers clean, flowing and better managed: this is water stewardship. We have backed this idea with action across our global network, and specifically through the HSBC Water Programme which is funding water initiatives across five priority basins worldwide; the Ganges, Pantanal, Mekong, Mara and Yangtze.
Creating change with cities and SME’s
To date, multinational businesses have been the main private sector players driving water stewardship. However, in most cities business is dominated by Small and Medium Enterprises (SME’s) and the next frontier in water stewardship is working with SME’s at a city scale.
The process usually involves convincing large numbers of smaller businesses that they are at risk from water issues, providing them with a platform to influence water management, and explaining to city authorities that the economic vitality of their cities, often built on SME’s, is exposed to water risks because of how water is managed. If we can do this then we can use the influence of cites to advocate for better water management.
Building on two years of engagement with SME’s, and showing the business case for adopting better management practices that use less water and cause less pollution, WWF-Pakistan have just launched a platform for water stewardship in Lahore. They have demonstrated that SME’s can save a lot of money from more efficient water and chemical use, but will need to act collectively with all other stakeholders at city level to address the 0.5 meter per year drop in groundwater level. Lahore’s businesses and citizens are almost totally dependent on this groundwater for their water supply.
HSBC Water Programme
I’ve just come back from India where our HSBC Water Programme team there are just starting a similar project in Kanpur, on the banks of the Ganges. Kanpur has some serious water problems, but water stewardship might be able to provide some solutions. Tanneries and leather goods manufacturers form a big part of Kanpur’s economy. Untreated tannery effluent (and much of Kanpur’s is untreated) is noxious stuff and a major contributor to the serious pollution of the Ganges. This has had critical impacts on communities as well as the biodiversity of the river, including the Ganges river dolphin that is a focus of much of our freshwater conservation work in India.
There is a growing awareness from consumers of the environmental impacts of leather production in places like Kanpur. Just recently Simon Reeve, one of our Ambassadors, presented a BBC documentary on the Ganges as part of his Sacred Rivers series, in which he visited Kanpur and showed the effects of the tanneries on the river. Sean Gallagher’s short film ‘The Toxic Price of Leather’, which spotlights the effect of tannery pollution on the health of local people and workers, won the CIWEM Environmental Film of the Year 2014 award.
Kanpur exports about 90% of its leather production, with much of that going to Europe, and a big proportion of that to the UK. Retailers in the UK who are sourcing leather from Kanpur are risking their reputations if they get tied to the pollution problems being caused there by their supply chains. Retailers in the UK and elsewhere who are selling Kanpur leather need to be good water stewards too and work with their suppliers in order to reduce their reputational risks. Consumer power makes for a very persuasive business case for the tanneries, whether that’s the end consumers like you and me influencing retailers, or the retailers themselves as customers of the leather goods factories.
So the challenge for us is to convince the tanneries that it’s in their own interests to clean up their pollution problem and to act collectively with other stakeholders at the city scale to advocate for better management of the Ganges. That’s quite some challenge, but if water stewardship is going to work anywhere, I think it will work in Kanpur.
What do you think of the blog? Leave us your comments below.