Water Stewardship: Good for Business and Development

By Paul Reig, World Resources Institute

Water Stewardship: Good for Business and Development

The United Nations is finalizing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of international goals addressing a wide range of global challenges, including energy, agriculture, governance, and poverty reduction. The SDGs will be implemented when the Millennium Development Goals, the UN’s last set of development targets, expire at the end of 2015 and water-related issues are a priority: One third of the goals are closely linked to water, and Goal 6 focuses specifically on water availability and sanitation.

Sustainable Water Management Requires Collective Action at the River Basin Level

Water challenges, especially within the context of sustainable development, are complex because they are very local yet globally relevant and shared between water users. For example, increased water scarcity or pollution discharge within a river basin may first affect industrial and agricultural water users, but then impact local and international communities depending on the businesses as well as farms suffering from water-related impacts.

As a result, no single government or sector of society can ensure a water-secure future on its own, and companies are realizing managing water within their four walls is insufficient. Only coordinated collective action can protect water resources and mitigate long-term risks. This approach is possible through water stewardship – the commitment to sustainable management of shared water resources in the public interest through collective action with other businesses, governments, NGOs, and communities.

The Role of Business in Meeting SDGs

While the UN is leading SDG development, companies have a unique role to play helping governments meet the sustainable development challenge. Businesses are closely connected with people, farms, and cities in every country across their value chains and they support human wellbeing and economies worldwide. Because of this relationship, positive business community contributions on sustainable development could create huge social, economic, and environmental benefits.

To better understand how businesses can help achieve water-related SDGs, the UN tasked the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation, Aquafed, the UN Global Compact CEO Water Mandate, the Pacific Institute, and the World Resources Institute with convening a discussion among members of the business community in January at the UN-Water annual conference in Zaragoza, Spain. With a global focus on water and development approaching World Water Day on March 22, lessons from Zaragoza are especially relevant.

The Business Community can Help Meet SDGs by Engaging in Corporate Water Stewardship

During the session, panelists highlighted multiple benefits of engaging in water stewardship, but one theme stood out: Corporate water stewardship aligns business and development goals by guiding companies toward managing water in the public interest to reduce long-term business risks and help ensure water security for all. This approach is a unique opportunity for businesses to improve water management across their value chains, reduce risks, and help meet water SDGs.

2015 is the year of water and sustainable development, so the time is ripe for companies to consider how they can contribute to water SDGs in the river basis they source from, operate, and provide goods and services. Panelists from the business session at the UN-Water annual conference recommended several actions, including:

Develop a corporate water stewardship strategy. Creating a strategy with public commitments and goals aligns business and development objectives, reduces long-term risks, and identifies new opportunities. AB InBev, for example, has integrated a water strategy across its value chain with public commitments such as engaging in watershed protection. Additional NGO and industry guidance is available from the WRI Water Program, WWF Stewardship Program, ICMM Water Stewardship Framework, CEO Water Mandate, and Alliance for Water Stewardship Standard, to name a few.

Increase collection and disclosure of water-related information. Developing meaningful corporate and public water policy to support water stewardship and collective action is difficult because water-related information is scarce, poorly collected, and often not disclosed in the public domain. CDP Water provides a vehicle for companies to communicate water-related risks to stakeholders and help focus investments in watersheds where pressing risks threaten sustainable development.

Leverage new financial instruments to support water projects. Financing is scarce for sustainable water management projects because many of the required investments are long-term, have longer payback periods, and are perceived as risky by commercial lenders. New financial instruments, such as those provided by IDB’s Structured and Corporate Finance Department, are available to help catalyze private sector investments in climate and water risk mitigation and sustainable development.

Inaction on water management issues will hurt businesses just as much as the communities and governments depending upon them. While any steps toward sustainable water management are positive, engaging in water stewardship is the best path forward for businesses interested in mitigating their short and long-term risks while committing to sustainable water resources management in the public interest.

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