'Soft' approach offers water security and flood protection for business

Businesses are in danger of relying too heavily on technological solutions for sustainable water management and need to take a more holistic approach in strategic planning.

Talking ahead of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development at the end of the month in Rotterdam, Wetland International's head of programme and strategy Chris Baker spoke to edie about some of the challenges involved in tackling water scarcity and managing floods.

There are water management issues that cut across the globe and businesses need to systematically incorporate them into their plans, according to Baker.

"Fundamentally the value of water and ecosystems that regulate water are not well factored into business planning because it's a rather invisible source," he said.

He gave the example of where the delivery of basic livelihoods to people in a flood plain ecosystem is not accounted for in business models.

"When upstream of such an area somebody diverts water for irrigation for food security, they take the water away from those people and that's not factored into their idea of how they are delivering food security," said Baker.

So far the emphasis in water management has been overwhelmingly on technological solutions and constructing "hard" or "grey" water infrastructure.

However, this is rarely the most sustainable option and the organisation is pushing for the maintenance and restoration of "soft" or "green" natural infrastructure and grey-green combinations, which can help reduce and better balance water risks, according to Wetlands International.

Baker said: "You can do hard infrastructure where you say, I need so much water to deliver so many kilojoules and you don't look at the wider impacts of taking that water."

"Or you can say I need a certain amount of energy but people down there need water. So how can I manage my water requirement in the design of the water infrastructure and the release of water downstream keeping them happy and at the same time delivering what is needed in terms of energy?"

"That is a softer approach - you're taking account of what ecosystems deliver as well as what you need to deliver from a business point of view."

Baker explained that the tradition of integrated water resources management was largely a government prerogative.

"They don't talk to business and businesses don't talk to them. Governments are not able to give an entry point for business and business is not actively looking for it," he explained.

Baker added: "Businesses have to take a broader scope of why they are investing and what they want out of it. At the moment the classic business model is that you stay within your fences and you look at what you need to deliver your business aims and you manage your resources accordingly and you don't look over the fence.

"Businesses need to look a bit more holistically at water, which is a common good in many ways, and how they manage it and how that management affects them and others."

He suggested that there were encouraging signs with businesses such as Coca Cola and SABMiller starting to take more of an active role in the field, but that there are still challenges to deal with.

"From a business point of view we understand - if you want to pay for ecosystems services upstream (away from where your business is) how do you guarantee you get a return on that investment?"

"These are the sorts of water governance problems that need to be resolved to make it more attractive for businesses to invest in this sort of approach," he said.

Conor McGlone


| Coca Cola | food | planning | Water scarcity | wetlands


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