Going Beyond Water Risks: Mobilising Business for a Water Wise World

The water crisis continues to score high on the World Economic Forum’s global risk assessment. While many business and opinion leaders consider water a less likely risk, it remains one of potential high impact. Combining this with other high-ranking risks – climate change, natural catastrophes and extreme weather events – ‘water’ certainly tops the risk ladder of many world leaders. It is perceived as a risk expressed through extreme events in the short term (18 months) and a globalised water crisis in the longer term (10 years).

This is true for leaders in South East Asia concerned about extreme weather events, and those in South Asia and the Middle East who foresee an acute water crisis. Last year Jordan’s Minister of Water, Hazim El Nassar, stated that, “We are one of the driest countries in the world, without further water investments we will not be able to grow Jordan’s economy and maintain societal stability”. Mass migration, another high ranking risk, from refugees is leading to unsustainable depletion of Jordan’s groundwater reserves.

The sheer magnitude and scale of global water challenges requires us to think and act differently and, by doing so, turning the water crisis into a gilt-edged opportunity for development at an unprecedented scale. We have to move from perceiving water risk to projecting a water wise world. We have to recognise water as fundamental to people, nature and societies.

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In a world in which water is wisely managed to satisfy the needs of human activities and ecosystems in an equitable and sustainable way, we would dramatically reduce water wasted from dripping pipes and leaking canals. We would re-use water that has served its economic purpose and recycle it together with the materials and energy within it. We would replenish rivers, lakes and groundwater reserves.

Recognising water as a central pillar of sustainability and resilience is not a luxury. Business, government and civil society are increasingly getting it: water is the lifeblood of economies, societies and nature all at the same time.

Coca Cola gets it, prioritising efforts to give back to nature what they have taken out for fizzy drink production. Ahmed Bozer, President of Coca Cola International, recently stated that by 2020, “We want to be the first multinational who can claim that, globally, we are water neutral.” In India and Mexico this goal has been achieved.

Nestle gets it, creating shared value around a shared resource. CEO Peter Bulcke has talked of a “values crisis”, stating that Nestle’s Creating Shared Value journey “focuses business on the long term where the success of society and economic activity are intimately intertwined and mutually reinforcing”.

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How do we move from these early adopters to create an early majority that takes action to elevate water to its rightful place?

Companies can work within their fenceline and reduce their water consumption. In water stressed China, for example, many industries now design new facilities to have zero liquid discharge, combing efficiency with safely re-using water. Industries can also work closer with cities and re-use treated used water for production and cooling. Like Coca Cola, companies can be part of restoring the quality of rivers and lakes, and recharge the aquifers they depend upon.

To truly contribute to sustainable water management though, businesses must go beyond their fenceline. The bigger challenge lies in managing water in large parts of the value chain not controlled by the corporations. While large corporations are starting to understand where the associated risks are, going beyond these risks cannot happen in isolation from other water users and stakeholders.

Creating a water wise world requires business to truly engage with a variety of stakeholders. This is hard, many stakeholders don’t share the same goals or logic as business; and multi-stakeholder processes are often long and complicated, with unknown behaviours and outcomes.

To seize the opportunities for solving the looming water crisis we need new approaches and unusual partnerships between diverse actors, to reach across value chains and boundaries. While business can and is taking on the water challenge, it’s the work beyond their fenceline that requires professional support to engage with stakeholders – problem owners and solutions providers alike.

Only through an audacious solutions-oriented approach will we be able to seize the opportunities the water crisis present to create a water wise world.

Ger Bergkamp

Past IWA Executive Director, IWA Board Member
Ger Bergkamp is the former Executive Director of the International Water Association – the international network of water professional with approximately 10,000 members in 130 countries. Ger is a recognized leader in water and environment issues wi... Read full biography