Realization that water efficiency alone is insufficient compels companies to collaborate across sectors, says WWF

Do this year's World Water Week attendees speak a common language when it comes to water, asks Stuart Orr.

WWF is keen for businesses to remember that when they experience water scarcity or pollution, others in the same catchment will also be feeling it.

World Water Week is in full swing, with close to 3,000 participants from all over the globe. We speak different languages, work on different issues and are drawn to Stockholm with different agendas. Not surprisingly, the question has come up: Do we speak a common language when it comes to water?

The answer, thus far, seems to be no. This is especially apparent when it comes to discussion of risk. Ask 10 delegates to define water-related risk, and you will hear 20 different responses. On one hand, this is to be expected; risk is subjective. On the other, with so much emphasis on partnership, one might wonder if it’s possible to collaborate to reduce risk when that might mean very different things to each partner. WWF’s experience shows that partnership and collaboration is not only possible, it’s essential. The first step is realizing that “shared risk” does not mean that everyone shares the same risk.

At World Water Week, we have heard from the oil and gas sector that their main concern is regulatory risk. The inconsistency or poor understanding of regulations around water use affect them in significant ways. Clothing companies are talking about how water pollution risk may affect their reputations. If their suppliers are not behaving in a way that fits with company values, that’s a risk.

Many food and beverage companies are facing risk because their plants are located in urban areas at the very end of river basins, usually near the coast, and the water source is literally running out before it reaches them. Growing urban populations also create competition for water resources, causing some companies to question how they will ensure supply in the future.

WWF’s message to companies is simple: When you experience water scarcity or pollution, realize that others in the same catchment are also feeling it. It may not be to the same degree; they may be more or less able to respond; they may have a different understanding of the problem; they may have different access to policy discussions; but you would be wise to work together to fix the root cause of your risk. The good news is, the message is getting through – a hopeful sign that if not a shared language, we at least have some common vocabulary.

The tendency in the past was to focus on efficiencies to deal with risk. The realization now that efficiency alone is insufficient compels companies to work with other sectors – others feeling different risk from the same water source. This is changing the focus from individual to collective action. It also means protecting and managing the ecosystems that provide water resources.

WWF in many ways is here as an interpreter – helping those who speak textiles to learn a little mining, and those who speak business to brush up on their policy. Little by little, collectively, we are creating the language of water.

For more on water stewardship, see WWF’s new briefing booklet and the Water Risk Filter.