April 8, 2015 Industry

Will Business Take a Lead in New Water Paradigms and Water Innovation?

On an almost daily basis the media show us the challenges we face in terms of water. Floods and droughts, the most obvious signs of disaster, dominate the public discourse. Extreme climate events are only symptoms of a much larger water challenge though, one that threatens human well-being, ecosystems, the economy and regional stability.

There is an increasing realisation that we need to up our game when it comes to sustainable water management. Water professionals recognise the urgency and they want to enhance much of what they have been doing for many years. The challenge is to ensure that the urgency to act is heard across all sectors.

This coming week, the 7th World Water Forum will take place in Korea, a multi stakeholder gathering to advance the cause of water. People with a stake in water will gather to address actions to improve water management as part of providing for a sustainable world. Ministers, regulators, policy makers, NGOs, utility leaders, top business people and water professionals will discuss and debate issues from across the water cycle.

We know that what is proposed in terms of national policies, plans and actions is the bare minimum for what the world needs. This creates an opportunity – and a responsibility – for business, the water sector and civil society to implement actions that go beyond the bare minimum. Non-state actors will need to work together and pull the state with them.

A series of three CEO Panels – to discuss Water Stewardship and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to foster innovation and build water resilience for cities – will bring key industry stakeholders together. Business increasingly views water management as a critical risk to their future success or failure. To accelerate responsible water management, companies realise they have to move their approach to water management beyond vision statements and standard business practices.

The role water management best practice can play, as part of an overall sustainable business agenda is clear. Considering the water and climate challenges the world faces, a sustainable business agenda means going beyond sustaining a business. It means creating closed loop water systems, recycling wastewater for usage elsewhere, creating energy from waste, creating energy and carbon neutral utilities. New technologies can enable companies to leapfrog past where they are today.

Progress has been made in water and energy efficiency, and awareness is growing of the role water plays across a company’s entire value chain: from source material production, to process, to consumers’ use of products. When it comes to water management, companies realise they need to engage with businesses in other sectors, as well as with cities and communities with whom they share precious water resources.

While a start has been made in terms of realisation, some significant questions remain to be answered. Can companies become the pioneers of a new ‘water paradigm’ within an industrial sector? If so, companies will have to radically shift their relationship to water, establish improved water management practices, test and apply new technologies within and beyond their traditional boundaries.

CEOs from corporations such as Coca Cola, Nestle, Suez Environment, Veolia, and Abengoa Water will be debating these issues during the panel sessions. Leading examples and achievements in water innovation will be presented; pitfalls and bottlenecks shared; and whether science and technology can in fact stimulate progress will be debated.

Can it be done? Will businesses indeed go beyond vision statements? In preparing for the panels I was reminded of discussions on sustainability and stakeholder engagement at the IWA World Water Congress last year in Lisbon and the presentation I gave regarding the energy sector and stakeholder engagement.

Businesses face an important opportunity and an inter-generational responsibility. In my experience, companies excel both at advancing best business practice and at talking about it. When a business wants to achieve something, its processes can be such that it outperforms expectations in a very short space of time. Imagine if that happens with the implementation of sustainable water management.

However, when a business elevates talking over doing, through its marketing and PR machines, it excels in perception management rather than sustainable business management. The way companies tell and sell their stories can, unfortunately, mean green-wash, or blue-wash when it comes to water. Its sustainable water solutions and innovation practice may sound like great water management, but in fact it may serve to keep its more traditional, unsustainable business practices going.

In order to advance best practice and scale up implementation, companies will have to apply the right kind of leadership, nurture culture change and work with a variety of stakeholders.

There is in fact a lot of good practice out there from different companies around the world. I hope to find myself inspired by solid examples of truly sustainable best practice when reporting on the CEO Panels at the World Water Forum in a few days time.

CEO Panels at 7th World Water Forum in Daegu (Korea) 13th April 2015

Fostering Innovation

11:20 – 13:20
Venue: Inter-Burgo EXCO Hotel, Grand Ballroom A (B1)

Water Stewardship and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Venue: Inter-Burgo EXCO Hotel, Grand Ballroom A (B1)

Building Water Resilience for Cities

17:00 – 19:00
Venue: Inter-Burgo EXCO Hotel, Grand Ballroom A (B1)

Want to connect with the IWA at the World Water Forum?

Find us on the 1st Floor of the Exhibition, Stand #C400