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The changing face of water stewardship: It’s about much more than philanthropy

Posted: 1 May 2012 | | No comments yet

As the title suggests, the concept and practice of water stewardship in the food and beverage industry has seen some significant evolution over the past decade. Part of this evolution was natural, but much of it, arguably, was the result of external stressors and diverse stakeholder voices which facilitated this evolution. Most notably, water stewardship has become much more holistic, along the lines of truly integrated water management approaches, and is now recognised more explicitly as being ‘a part of’ the core business – not something which sits ‘apart from’ it.

To say ‘it’s not about philanthropy’ is much more than an attempt to pique the reader’s interest; rather, it represents a cornerstone shift in thinking by companies and their partners to a more expansive view of what comprehensive water stewardship means. When we consider that no other single element besides water sits at the nexus of so many global challenges, it is advantageous to ground us in the magnitude of these realities. Indeed, water materially impacts such diverse things as water (in)security, food (in)security, climate (in)security, global health, education, gender equity and even national and international security.

As we sit here today, nearly one billion people – 884 million1 – lack access to safe water supplies. This is nearly three times the population of the United States2, and this is the result after literally decades of programs attempting to help mitigate this crisis.

As the title suggests, the concept and practice of water stewardship in the food and beverage industry has seen some significant evolution over the past decade. Part of this evolution was natural, but much of it, arguably, was the result of external stressors and diverse stakeholder voices which facilitated this evolution. Most notably, water stewardship has become much more holistic, along the lines of truly integrated water management approaches, and is now recognised more explicitly as being ‘a part of’ the core business – not something which sits ‘apart from’ it.To say ‘it’s not about philanthropy’ is much more than an attempt to pique the reader’s interest; rather, it represents a cornerstone shift in thinking by companies and their partners to a more expansive view of what comprehensive water stewardship means. When we consider that no other single element besides water sits at the nexus of so many global challenges, it is advantageous to ground us in the magnitude of these realities. Indeed, water materially impacts such diverse things as water (in)security, food (in)security, climate (in)security, global health, education, gender equity and even national and international security.As we sit here today, nearly one billion people – 884 million1 – lack access to safe water supplies. This is nearly three times the population of the United States2, and this is the result after literally decades of programs attempting to help mitigate this crisis.

As the title suggests, the concept and practice of water stewardship in the food and beverage industry has seen some significant evolution over the past decade. Part of this evolution was natural, but much of it, arguably, was the result of external stressors and diverse stakeholder voices which facilitated this evolution. Most notably, water stewardship has become much more holistic, along the lines of truly integrated water management approaches, and is now recognised more explicitly as being ‘a part of’ the core business – not something which sits ‘apart from’ it.

To say ‘it’s not about philanthropy’ is much more than an attempt to pique the reader’s interest; rather, it represents a cornerstone shift in thinking by companies and their partners to a more expansive view of what comprehensive water stewardship means. When we consider that no other single element besides water sits at the nexus of so many global challenges, it is advantageous to ground us in the magnitude of these realities. Indeed, water materially impacts such diverse things as water (in)security, food (in)security, climate (in)security, global health, education, gender equity and even national and international security.

As we sit here today, nearly one billion people – 884 million1 – lack access to safe water supplies. This is nearly three times the population of the United States2, and this is the result after literally decades of programs attempting to help mitigate this crisis. Certainly, there has been some positive movement, but not enough by many accounts. For example, consider that today, a child dies nearly every 20 seconds as the result of a waterborne illness, improved from every 15 seconds a couple of years ago3. But is this adequate? Should a child be dying at that interval because they cannot have access to safe water? Is it acceptable that today more people have access to mobile phones than they do to toilets, recognising the inextricable link between water, sanitation and global disease? In fact, 3.575 million people die each year from a waterrelated disease4, and the solutions exist to prevent many of these deaths and countless more illnesses. But why should a company care?

Aside from the fact that caring is inarguably the ‘right thing to do’, as so many companies would no doubt agree, the casualties of the water-related global health crisis are the con – sumers of tomorrow. They are the employees and families of today and of the future. They are the customers, partners and suppliers for companies which enable them to flourish. For public corporations, they are the share – holders, the people who buy stock in your company to keep it sound. Investment in their access to safe water is an investment in the future of the business. To be without safe water – and this is not hyperbole; it is reality – is to be without business, without governments, without communities, without life.

Water scarcity already affects every continent. Businesses, like people, need water to survive and flourish. Around 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world’s population, live in areas of physical scarcity, and 500 million people are approaching this situation. Another 1.6 billion people, or almost one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage (where countries lack the necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers). Water scarcity is both a natural and human-made phenomenon. There is enough freshwater on the planet for six billion people but it is distributed unevenly and too much of it is wasted, polluted and unsustainably managed5. It is an obligation of everyone – companies, governments, non-governmental organisations and individuals – to use water responsibly. For companies, this means assuring vigilance in their direct operations, but also extending diligent conservation approaches to their supply chain. For governments, it means assuring adequate and comprehensive water adaptation plans and application of integrated water management. For NGOs, this means helping governments and their partners respect and protect water as a fundamental human right. For individuals, it means doing what you can on a personal level to respect the earth’s water resources and use water wisely, and protect its quality.

Consider also the intuitive link between water and food security. According to World Water Forum and other estimates, agriculture represents approximately 70 per cent of global water withdrawals, and this can be as high as 90 per cent in some developing economies. It is also often these same developing economies where chronic under nutrition is the most prevalent. Nearly one billion people (925 million) are undernourished, which means that nearly one in seven people, as you read this article today, are hungry6. Many of those same people are subject to the pressures of climate change and have few options to manage the risks of unpredictable weather which manifest most often as too much or too little water at the wrong time. Obviously, you need water to grow food, and you need a lot of it. One UK estimate suggests that it takes approximately 200 million litres per second to grow the food currently on the planet7. It is critical that water stewardship efforts not only preserve the quantity of this water needed, and its access, but the quality of it, as well. The linkage between water and food security not only entails the amount of water used to explicitly grow the food we need – for our own nutrition, and also for global commerce and economy – but how we manage the quality of this water once it is reintroduced to the environment. We must be diligent in managing the use of agricultural chemicals and the runoff and percolation of these chemicals into the water supplies – and the potential impact to the health of the soil with which the water has contact.

So, we understand the intuitive relationship between the amount of water we need to grow the food we eat, but what about the other way around? Do we think about how what we eat affects the amount of water we need? Thanks to efforts by the Water Footprint Network in the Netherlands, and the pioneer of the concept of embedded water, Professor Anthony Allen from Kings College in London, awareness continues to build about the ‘virtual’ or ‘embedded’ water contained within the goods and services we trade in our global economy. Although the precision of the calculations for water footprint, as well as the method with which to assess the local impact of the components of water footprint, are still being refined, it is generally accepted that is takes many times more water to provide a good or service than its direct water use implies. For example, it generally requires signifi – cantly more water to grow and process a kilogram of beef than it does a kilogram of chicken, and even less to grow a kilogram of rice8. So, the dietary choices we make can actually be considered individual acts of water stewardship! In a correspondence to the journal, Nature, researchers suggest that “changing food consumption patterns are the main cause of the worsening water scarcity in China. If other developing countries follow China’s trend towards protein-rich Western diets, the global water shortage will become still more severe. Raising public awareness about healthy eating habits could not only reduce the risk of chronic disease but could also help to mitigate water scarcity9.” At the same time, stepped up research and development in crop varieties that are resistant to drought, floods or salinity can also help to reduce water-related food insecurity. So, what we eat not only matters for our personal health, but for the planetary health, as well.

And why should a company care? As a food and beverage company, these global realities inform our strategic planning – which products to develop and market, where to site new plants, how best to support the communities where we operate – and also impact our employees. Any responsible employer wants to attract and retain the best employees long term, and this includes enabling their healthy and sustainable lifestyles, both in the workplace and at home.

Water and food security might be an easily understood nexus, as is the relationship between water and global health, but what about the linkage between water and education? Or water and gender? Or water and productivity?

Consider that every single day, more than 200 million hours of women’s time is consumed collecting water for domestic uses. According to an estimate by Gary White, co-founder of Water.org, this lost productivity is greater than the combined number of hours worked in a week by employees at Wal*Mart, United Parcel Service, McDonald’s, IBM, Target, and Kroger10. White also estimates that this productivity is the equivalent of building 28 Empire State Buildings every single day!

Unfortunately, many of these women are in reality children; children who are not able to attend school due to the critical need to fetch water. Millions of women and children spend several hours a day collecting water from distant, often polluted sources11.

Imagine, for a company, the productivity that could be gained if the global water crisis were adequately addressed. Imagine the improvement in school attendance, particularly for women, that would be enabled. According to the World Health Organisation, investment to improve drinking water, sanitation, hygiene and water resource management systems delivers economic productivity. Every dollar invested in water and sanitation leads to up to eight dollars in benefits. Again, water at the nexus of so many global challenges.

How then can a company tackle what amounts to a seemingly insurmountable challenge? How can they apply responsible water stewardship to an area so diverse and complex?

Collaboration is crucial to success. Many agree that no single entity and no single sector can solve a crisis of this magnitude alone. It is only through collective efforts and sharing of good practices that genuine progress will continue to be made. Thankfully, there are many such collaborations which have been formed over the years, and one of which has enjoyed success in the opinions of the authors is the United Nations CEO Water Mandate – part of the United Nations Global Compact.

According to their website, the UN CEO Water Mandate12:

“…seeks to make a positive impact with respect to the emerging global water crisis by mobilising a critical mass of business leaders to advance water sustainability solutions – in partnership with the United Nations, civil society organisations, governments, and other stakeholders. As a special initiative of the UN Secretary-General, The CEO Water Mandate offers a unique action platform to share best and emerging practices and to forge multi-stakeholder partnerships to address the problems of access to water and sanitation. Endorsers of The CEO Water Mandate recognise that through individual and collective action they can contribute to the vision of the UN Global Compact and the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals.”

Since its inception in 2007, the Mandate has grown significantly and offers a compre – hensive approach to water stewardship for the private sector, addressing six key areas: Direct Operations, Supply Chain and Watershed Management, Collective Action, Public Policy, Community Engagement and Transparency.

PepsiCo has been an endorser of the Mandate from its early days, and the platform represents one of global collaboration, across diverse sectors of business, with linkages to the United Nations and other instrumental entities. Companies that endorse the mandate are required to report progress annually against a set of standard principles.

Whether a company chooses the CEO Water Mandate for endorsement, joins the Water Leadership Group of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development13, an equally world-class and complementary effort to the Mandate, or constructs its own internal strategy, it must realise that effective water stewardship requires a comprehensive approach. It is no longer only about improving water use efficiency in direct operations and supply chain, preserving and protecting watersheds, providing access to safe water for communities that lack it, advocating for proper water policy and engaging collaborative partners. It is, instead, about all of these, and more.

References

  1. UNICEF/WHO, 2008. Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation: www.who.int/water_ sanitation_health/ monitoring/jmp_report_7_10_lores.pdf
  2. US Census: www.census.gov/main/www/ popclock.html
  3. Water.org, adapted from UN Human Development Report, 2006: water.org/water-crisis/waterfacts/ children/
  4. Safe Water, Better Health. World Health Organisation: www.who.int/quantifying_ ehimpacts/publications/saferwater/en/index.html
  5. www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/scarcity.shtml
  6. worldhunger.org: www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hu nger%20facts%202002.htm#Number_of_hungry_ people_in_the_world
  7. www.waterwise.org.uk/pages/fun-facts.html
  8. www.waterfootprint.org
  9. Nature 454, 397 (24 July 2008) | doi:10.1038/ 454397a; Published online 23 July 2008: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v454/n720 3/full/454397a.html
  10. water.org/water-crisis/water-facts/women/
  11. UN Human Development Report. hdr.undp.org/en/ media/HDR06-complete.pdf
  12. UN CEO Water Mandate. ceowatermandate.org/ about/mission-statement/
  13. www.wbcsd.org/work-program/sectorprojects/ water/overview.aspx

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