The Global Water Crisis: Emerging global water crisis, can industry do more to manage their footprint?

Interview with WWF Water Stewardship Manager , Lucy Lee

Edited by Codra Masiiwa: Animus Sustainability Portal (

Emerging global water crisis, can industry do more to manage their footprint?

According to the UN our planet is facing a 40 per cent shortfall in water supply by 2030. What is WWF’s approach to helping halt this trend given that the NGO is amongst some of the influential and operate in various countries? What strategies have you been employing and targeting which stakeholders?

Globally our freshwater environment is under threat. WWF’s 2014 Living Planet Index shows that populations of freshwater species have declined by 76% since 1970. Climate change impacts, such as increased weather variability including a greater frequency of floods and droughts, coupled with population growth and increasing water consumption, also poses a major challenge. In fact, the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Risk Report ranked “water crises” as the risk with the biggest potential impact to global growth.

We appreciate that the drivers of the risks to the economy are the same as the ones causing the decline of our freshwater resources, and also affecting our communities. That is the poor management of rivers and lakes. The scale of the challenges means no one sector, government or NGO can respond to them alone.

WWF have an extensive programme of freshwater work that is engaging with governments, businesses, local communities and other NGO’s. To give one example we have been working with companies since 2008 to develop our concept of water stewardship. We have created a clear 5 step framework (as set out in the diagram below) to support companies to respond to shared water risks. We have been implementing that approach in a number of river basins (including the Breede in South Africa and Lake Naivasha in Kenya) demonstrating that by working with governments (local and national), the private sector and other stakeholders, vital improvements in water resources management can be achieved.

WWF’s Water Stewardship Ladder – setting out 5 steps to enable companies to respond to water risks

We are also developing 16 water stewardship basin strategies. In these basins we have been consulting companies, donors, investors, and other stakeholders to look at what the risks are and bringing together groups of stakeholders initially to create awareness of why water matters. The ultimate aim is to facilitate collective action and identify projects and interventions that can benefit all water users and strengthen the governance of water in those basins.

Our vision is that for the identified 16 basins, freshwater resources will be managed sustainably and equitably, to meet the needs of communities, businesses and ecosystems.  Many of those basins are in developing world from the Ganges in India, Yangtze in China, the Zambezi in southern Africa  amongst others.

WWF’s Water Stewardship Basin Strategies – in each of the 16 priority river basins we have consulted companies, donors and investors and developed a strategy to overcome growing water risks.

Previous water crisis have been known to be a challenge in the poor developing nations, however, various reports now indicate that developed countries are also slowly facing water crisis. Could they be any lessons from the developing nations?

The growing water resources crisis is a result of both natural water scarcity, unsustainable management of water resources, and often a combination of both.  This is occurring in both developed and developing world.

When we are thinking about water, the local context is really important. The risk drivers in one catchment can be very different from those in another catchment. That applies even in the same country. With that in mind it is difficult to give a generalised response regarding lessons learnt across the global divide. However, there will be catchments where there are similar drivers of risks in developing countries, and the way they are being responded to there could provide useful lessons for developed countries that are now experiencing similar types of risks.

Are we beginning to experience impact of climate change or is the growing crisis related to food security policies and energy related infrastructural development?

The water risks we face are a result of natural causes as well as the way we manage water. We recognise the issues affecting the people, planet and prosperity are interrelated and call for integrated solutions. In 2014 WWF published a report with SAB Miller on the Food Energy and Water nexus. The report recognised the interdependencies between food, water and energy systems. We looked at the ways in which nexus issues played out in 16 countries. From our research we concluded that the most resilient economic systems combine robust infrastructure, flexible institutions and functioning natural capital.

We have to look at crisis in the round and of-course climate change presents further challenges going forward. We also have a rapidly growing population that inevitably increase demand on water associated with an increase in urbanisation and associated changing consumption patterns.

People are using more water per-head. We need action to improve water efficiency and reduce the per capita demand for water.  We also need a step change in the way we manage water to avoid such crises. We need coordinated collaborative action to do that and to preserve the growth of our economies, safeguard our freshwater ecosystems and communities that rely on that water.

Freshwater resources are transboundary. Their management within countries have wider implication on national development  food security and economic growth. How can nations best address the challenges of impending water crisis whilst serving domestic needs?

The increasing pressure on water means that collaboration across countries is becoming essential for tackling the challenges we face. Conflict and competition for water just won’t deliver sustainable outcomes for people, businesses or the environment. To create the right environment for collaboration I think we need to recognise the shared challenges we face around water and the interconnectedness of us all when it comes to water issues.

WWF is a strong advocate for responsible private sector engagement on water issues. We believe we need collaboration between government, the private sector, NGO’s and local communities to best address our water challenges. Through our water stewardship approach we are demonstrating that there is an incentive for business to invest in collective action beyond their fence lines and to influence governance to support sustainable water management as it also manages business risk. We are looking to  take the lessons learnt from our projects to date to scale up and replicate across wider geographic scales, for example in the 16 basins in which we are currently developing and implementing water stewardship basin strategies.

As always placing such global crisis on governments and expecting a swift process always doesn’t bring the intended results within expected time frames.  Can we place this responsibility on business and what are the likely challenges?

Government will always have the ultimate lead and responsibility for managing water resources. However, business can have a key role to play in supporting governments to improve the way water is managed for the benefit of all. Strong water governance means reduced physical and reputational water risks for business, and a more stable, predictable regulatory landscape. Businesses that want to influence the governance of water have a responsibility to ensure their own house is in order first, taking steps to manage water effectively internally and to engage the supply chain to ensure products are being sourced sustainably.

When you have got the NGO sector, the local community and business sector working together, that can provide a really strong message back up to government to highlight that water is not only affecting local ecosystems but also that business is recognising it’s a risk to their business continuity. Demonstrating the ways in which water is important for the economies of regions can be a powerful driver for action helping to develop narratives that can show water risks in different perspectives.

WWF is championing the concept of water footprints. Can you explain the idea behind this and what it means for companies with a large foot print.

Water footprinting is part of the solution but not the whole picture. It is a useful way of understanding a company’s water dependency in their supply chain, raising awareness of water issues, and understanding trading in virtual water. However, we think that water risk is the most important driver for business action, and that is partly linked to the volumetric water consumption of a company. To give one example, you may have one company that has a small water footprint but high associated risk if they are in a catchment that is water stressed – so in this instance footprinting doesn’t give an accurate picture of risk. Or if you have a company with a small water footprint but that is connected to a sector that has high reputational risks it might actually be a risk to the business.

You have partnerships with companies such as The Coca-Cola Company, SABMiller, IKEA and Marks & Spencer whose abstraction is significantly higher compared to for eg financial services sector. What has been the motivation in choosing these partners, and what is the role of WWF in the partnerships?

We tend to choose partners based on two main factors:

– that they share our values and objectives on water issues, and that water is really an important issue

– the scale of the company. It’s vital that we work with companies and build challenging and constructive relationships with those who can influence others, deliver meaningful impacts and drive real change.  These factors put together can help us ensure that we achieve our conservation objectives. Historically we have tended to work in bilateral partnerships, however we are increasingly exploring the use multilateral partnerships on water issues, recognising the value in a strong collective voice to support more sustainable management of  water.

We are looking in specific geographies that are important from a conservation perspective where there are links to businesses supply chains and operations We help them identify what the risks are and how they can collectively manage them.

It is very much looking at the context in the catchments in which companies operate and source from, identified the drivers of risk and a targeted strategy to address them. , We have produced guidance on the actions companies can take to look at their water risks, and how they can create a strong strategy to help minimise the impact.

How do you monitor impact of the water stewardship

It is very important to us to track the impact of our water stewardship work. We have a partnership with Coca-Cola here in the UK, that was linked to the chalk stream catchments, where Coca-Cola are sourcing their sugarbeet in Norfolk. We had a strong monitoring and evaluation process from the start of that project to set a robust baseline. We have been influencing farming practices locally and monitoring what difference that has had in-terms of impact on the ground, for example, whether we see a difference in the water quality in the river or if we see decreased sedimentation runoff from the field. The way we monitor our projects is really important to us. We recognise that it can be challenging to measure the impact of interventions taken on the ground and this an area we continue to strengthen Some of the outcomes we want to see take time as ecosystems respond but we are making sure we are taking a scientific approach to  tracking progress.

As most of the companies you partner have a global outlook either through their direct operations or supply chains, are your interventions and strategies country specific?

We are using a risk based approach in our work with companies. This approach uses the Water Risk Filter that WWF have developed. We then use the findings to locate hotspots of water risks. We have done this in partnership with M&S (UK). We identified a hot spot of water risk in the Breede catchment in the Western Cape of South Africa that is also one of WWF’s priority locations for freshwater conservation. As a result we have worked with the Alliance for Water Stewardship, Woolworths SA and M&S to develop a collective action project, engaging farmers in that catchment. We definitely have to be aware of local content in what we do. We work with a network of our different offices across the World. We work with the local office to make sure that the project is relevant to the local context. In terms of the project in South African project, it has been WWF South Africa that has been leading that process, and engaging with people on the ground from M&S in country, the AWS, South African based companies, and local stakeholders. These groups in the catchment bring a broad range of views so that we are engaging and getting buy in to a collective solution that will help ensure we deliver the results we want to see on the ground.

We have taken a different approach to engaging companies in our basin work. To inform each of our Water Stewardship Basin Strategies we have undertaken a mapping exercise to identify the companies, donors and investors that have links to the basin. In each of these basins we have already, or will be, working to raise awareness of why waters matters, to support collective action to develop integrated solutions to the challenges and to influence the way water is managed. WWF’s vision is for freshwater resources to be managed sustainably and equitably in each of these basins to enable thriving communities, businesses and healthy ecosystems.

Thank You.

Lucy Lee is a Water Stewardship Manager at WWF. WWF is a strong advocate for responsible private sector engagement on water issues. We have been working with companies to develop our concept of water stewardship since 2008, which serves to unite a wide set of stakeholders to support the sustainable management of water resources. Lucy works with companies to support the assessment of water risks, identification of water risks hotspots and the development of strategies to respond to these risks. This work focuses on supporting collective action in WWF’s priorities geographies that have been identified for their conservation value, but also because they are under increasing pressure. There is an inventive for companies to invest in action beyond their ‘fence line’ because it also manages business risk. The aim is that the collective action can ultimately be used to influence the governance of water to ensure the sustainable management of water resources to meet the needs of people, nature and business.

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