A tale of resilience: The evolution of water stewardship

Resilience is the word of the year. Covid-19 has challenged the resilience of our local communities and global systems. But this is not a new concept for sustainability professionals. We have made huge strides in applying a resilience lens to corporate water efforts for many years now.

A tale of resilience: The evolution of water stewardship

The pandemic has placed the current water realities of high-stress geographies and unequal access to clean water and sanitation in stark relief. These SDG 6 challenges are not new– but there is renewed urgency to integrate the demands of improving watershed health with expanding access and knowledge about water and sanitation.  

We at AB InBev are vested in this topic as  water is the number one ingredient in all our products. More importantly, we know water is a basic human right and  critical resource for the health and well-being of our communities. That is why we’ve taken an outward-in approach in our 2025 Water Goal which aims for measurably improved water availability and quality for 100% of our communities in high stress areas.

This work has been informed by our decades-long commitment to improving our internal water efficiency and protecting the watersheds where we operate. Together with NGO partners like WWF and The Nature Conservancy, as well as our peers in the beverage industry, we have successfully advanced beyond good intentions, towards measurable impact in high risk locations.

Indeed, corporate water strategies gained substantial momentum and sophistication in the late 2000s/early 2010s. Then came a brief period of stagnation, when we all felt stuck with the complexity trying to put theory into practice. Underpinned by growing understanding of freshwater context, sense of urgency and collaboration, the water community is now turning to data, innovation and partnerships to shift strategies, once and for all, from water management to water stewardship.

Make no mistake, this is no easy task. Water risk is very local, and collectively we are working hard to better understand that  context and to look beyond our walls – into our communities, watersheds and supply chains. Some of the strategic imperatives are outcome-based collaboration, constant pursuit of innovation, and new approaches to financing.

Outcome-based collaboration

Partnerships are evolving beyond individual companies partnering with single NGOs for selected projects. There is a more systemic approach emerging with multiple corporations collaborating at scale, together with local authorities and civil society.  For example, six Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER) members, namely AB InBev/Grupo Modelo, Brown-Forman, Bacardi, Pernod Ricard, Beam Suntory and Keurig Dr Pepper, recently initiated a unique watershed collaboration addressing shared water challenges in Guadalajara, Mexico – by restoring ecosystems to improve the region’s water quality and quantity. Key activities will include planting native vegetation to increase groundwater levels and reduce soil loss and improving water infrastructure.

Constant pursuit of innovation

Innovation is required across the sector including treatment technologies, water source protection, revenue management and institutional reform. At AB InBev, we focus our innovation on a combination of technology for internal efficiency and external impact through our annual 100+ Sustainability Accelerator. Recent examples of success include EWTech, a Colombian start-up helping some of our breweries save up to 60% water in the cleaning phase and Asarasi, a beverage company we are partnering with to scale up use of reclaimed water from the maple syrup industry for a quality drinking water alternative.

New approaches to financing

There is no doubt that we also need to remodel financing approaches in order to deal with the complexity and scale of the water challenges we face. At AB InBev, we have seen watershed projects in partnership with The Nature Conservancy attract significant financing from development finance institutions such as the IDB and GIZ – and also from other corporate partners. With WWF and the OECD, we are looking at new innovations in Zambia to scale watershed investments not through single projects but rather the analysis and packaging of potential bankable water solutions for investment. In partnership with Water.org, through our Stella Artois brand we are learning the value of micro-finance to enable poor communities to access capital to address the water and sanitation gap.

Water security is complex, and we won’t have perfect answers. But we can continue to design resilience by rethinking how we approach collaboration, innovation, and financing to unlock the full value of water for a healthier, cleaner and more prosperous future.

Ezgi Barcenas is AB InBev’s global vice president for sustainability 

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