Business must drive collective action and face up to ‘underlying water risks’

Companies only undertaking water-related activities from a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) perspective, are unlikely to address the underlying water risks they face, nor harness the potential opportunities, a new report claims.

According to the report by environmental group WWF, becoming a good water steward necessitates shifting from ad hoc and philanthropic initiatives to recognising water as a strategic and core business issue that is material to profits and long-term opportunities for growth.

Coinciding with World Water Week, which starts on September 1 in Stockholm, the report looks at how businesses are dealing with water issues and how to facilitate water stewardship.

Introducing five steps to effective stewardship, the report urges greater water awareness and knowledge of the impacts related to water. However, its focal message is ‘collective action’.

Stressing the importance of partnerships, the report says that in order to create sustainable solutions, water stewardship partnerships should encompass the range of stakeholders that have an interest in water management, and engage the expertise, resources and institutional capital of others.

“It is essential that businesses engaging in water stewardship recognise, understand and respect the efforts that have already been made on water management by these stakeholders,” the report says.

“For these partnerships to be successful they must address shared risks; that is, activities should tackle problems that are relevant for all the partners, and not just those specific to the business,” it adds.

WWF argue that companies share a need with the public for reliable water services and sustainable water management.

Referring to “shared risk”, WWF says this is the idea that companies have an incentive to invest in sustainable water management beyond their “fence-line” in a way that advances the public interest, because it manages business risk at the same time.

Shared risk does not imply that water challenges create an equal and similar risk or sense of urgency to all stakeholders. It instead shows the concept elevates local water challenges as a common or shared problem and, ideally, triggers proactive and collaborative responses.

An additional concern raised in the report is how often companies seek to model their water strategy on carbon measures, off-sets and lifecycle assessments. “Water is not carbon,” it warns.

“While there is wide agreement that water is ‘different’ and that water in one basin is not equivalent to water in another, this has not slowed the number of carbon and off-set organisations moving into water,” it says.

WWF claim that almost all of these initiatives have a long way to go to shake off their bias toward internal efficiency and weak analysis of impact, and begin to be relevant to stewardship and the external context of shared water-related risk.

Leigh Stringer

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