Human Nature

We need to move from words to action and we need to do it together. That is my take home message from the 7th World Water Forum, held recently in Korea.

The Forum saw ample evidence of wide reaching achievements in the water sector that, if scaled up, could make a significant difference in moving to a sustainable water world. Across sectors water professionals are taking action to implement new frameworks: enhancing cross-sectoral cooperation; upscaling technology innovations; planning regenerative cities; and corporations committing to being water neutral by 2020.

Ahead of the Forum I questioned whether I would find myself motivated by discussions at the Forum’s CEO Panels (Will Business Take a Lead). I wondered whether the panels would give me confidence that businesses will take a lead in the creation of new water paradigms and water innovation that are put into practice as a matter of urgency, rather than just talking about it.

There are encouraging signs, but the jury is still out.

Listening to a wide range of discussions, the words of Lao Tzu came to me, “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.” Doesn’t this quote teach us that we should frame the future as sustainable and resilient, as an attractive and achievable future?

We need to address the perceptions we put out there, the myths we create and reinforce daily. The broken water world – the one of water stress, scarcity, floods and droughts – is well known. The future we, and future generations face, is framed over and over as one filled with disaster and insecurity.

Many at the Forum felt the need to expand upon these broken world scenarios. The Hungarian President put it quite clearly during the Grand Opening, Mother Nature has sent us plenty of messages, our time is up.

Despite this, I found myself stimulated at the Forum, not only by the debates during the CEO panels, but by water professionals from across sectors who are driven and impatient about accelerating the implementation of water solutions. These discussions provided a different framing for the future of water. As you might expect of corporations with multi-million dollar marketing budgets, it is business that is taking a lead on a new water narrative.

If Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) used to be the entry point for sustainable corporate strategy, then we are entering a new world. CSR is no longer a PR instrument, but intrinsic to business strategy. Corporations like Coca Cola and Nestle appear to place water stewardship and water neutrality as an intrinsic part to their business. Coca Cola’s Ahmet Bozer stated that it aims to be water neutral by 2020, hopefully earlier.

CEO Innovation Panel for Science & Technology in Water from IWA on Vimeo.

Ger Bergkamp, Executive Director, International Water Association, discusses the CEO Forums

Nestle said that they did not have a CSR Strategy, as that might give the impression of a PR exercise. Instead Nestle has sustainability at the core of its business strategy, and believes sustainability to be a future driver of consumer purchasing decisions. Will we see their expressed intentions become reality?

In order to speed up progress should corporations be working closely with organisations like the World Wildlife Fund? WWF’s President Yolanda Kakabadse said collaboration wasn’t always a ‘happy marriage’, but often a necessary partnership. She also pointed out that there is a need for improved collaboration among NGOs as well as among corporations. She emphasised the need to break away from the artificial divide of producer and consumer, something utility leaders Gyewoon Choi from K-Water and David La France from American Water Works Association, endorsed. “We need to take the public on a journey to understand the value of water, “ La France said.

So whose responsibility is it to educate the consumer, to guide the citizen to sustainable (water) behaviour? Is it a corporate responsibility, an NGO’s or government’s? Should Coca Cola take up this challenge or rely on WWF to work with its members? Should Nestle or Coca Cola use their brand to ensure sustainable consumer behaviour? Coca Cola’s Ahmet Bozer believes it shouldn’t confuse its brand messages with a call for action. WWF’s Yolanda Kakabadse believes we have a shared responsibility, and appealed for all of us to urgently ‘deal with the tensions that our planet is suffering today’.

Creating water stewardship is about collaboration. What is crucial is the relationship between the provider and the user, across value chains. This invites a new responsibility for corporations, civil society, policy makers, regulators, and utilities to improve and upscale their activities. Furthermore, there is an invitation for the citizen to step up and demand action.

I was encouraged, although doubts remain. At this and other meetings, the international community comes together, best practice gets shared, innovation debated and the need to accelerate sustainable water management agreed. What actually defines success?

If we make good on our promises, we could soon witness transformational water solutions that really contribute to a sustainable water world. We have an opportunity to make water management a positive catalyst for sustainable change, to make water a stimulus for the circular economy. To do so we must get some things right: most urgently, addressing the ‘human challenge’ and long-term structural and financial solutions.

Jan Eliasson, Deputy Secretary-General of the UN, framed this dilemma succinctly, “Our biggest challenge is to deal with human nature, not Mother Nature.”

The conclusion I draw is that we need to improve our collaboration, address our risk taking and start using a different language to paint a picture of a future world that is positive. Maybe we should agree to hold each other accountable along this challenging journey, because we are all in it together.

A quote that I recently picked up through social media says it all: ‘Be an encourager, the world has plenty of critics already.’