A stake in the ground: Business engagement and water

WWF puts its stake in the ground when it comes to what is and isn't worthwhile in business engagement on water.

WWF's has released its latest publication on water stewardship in time for World Water Week.

Early each autumn, Stockholm draws a few thousand visitors from around the world who share a common interest – and it’s not lutfisk. No, these policymakers, scientists, corporate professionals and students don’t go for the Swedish delicacies, at least not exclusively. They go for World Water Week, and whether discussing the biology of the giant Mekong catfish or the effects of sanitation on school attendance, they are all trying to make the most of this resource that sustains life on Earth.

It is water’s essential, irreplaceable nature that draws this diverse group to World Water Week each year. The scientist advocates for the needs of species that cannot speak for themselves. The student is on the cusp of perfecting a new technology to purify water. The corporate professional has just learned her supply chain is in a river basin facing severe water scarcity. The policymaker must try to balance the need to deliver a human right, feed a nation and fuel an economy.

These divergent perspectives and priorities don’t lead to rancor. On the contrary, the week is marked by a “we’re-all-in-this-together” spirit. There’s an acknowledgement that we aren’t looking for one answer, but many; and it won’t come from one sector, but several.

WWF occupies a unique position at World Water Week. We are a voice for nature, reminding decision makers that water doesn’t come from a pipe. Functioning ecosystems provide our water and a host of other services. It’s more cost effective to maintain and protect these ecosystems than to engineer solutions to problems of our own creation.

As more companies come to understand their water-related business risk, more will engage on water issues

WWF is also a partner of governments and companies that are striving to achieve sustainable water management. This is where the concept of water stewardship comes into play – a concept that will get a lot attention over the course of the week.

Water stewardship is at an interesting point in its conceptual evolution. There’s enough substantive discussion that people think it’s important, but it’s new enough that there’s not a universally agreed definition. This can leave people thinking they should be doing it, but unsure what IT is. Or maybe they are doing it already? If that’s the case, is it OK to start making public claims? Tricky.

To help guide both discussion and action,WWF has issued “Water Stewardship: Perspectives on business risks and responses to water challenges.” This slim volume succinctly puts WWF’s “stake in the ground” on what’s worthwhile and what’s not when it comes to business engagement on water. We base our definition on the insights gained from our contributions to many of the aspects that make up water stewardship, including river basin management, water footprinting, risk analysis and metrics, stewardship strategy, public policy guidance, standards development and partnerships with companies in stressed watersheds.

Why issue such a brief? Why not let the discourse follow its own course? Because as more companies come to understand their water-related business risk, more will engage on water issues. This should be good news – more resources and creativity brought to bear on the challenges at hand. However, we recognize that business engagement in water management debates, and especially public policy, provokes significant concerns from some NGOs and the public, including fears about business takeover of global resources.

To ensure that the profit motive of companies is balanced with social and environmental values, WWF and others must be able to separate water stewardship rhetoric from substantive action. We do not want to see effort wasted pursuing dead-ends and ineffective approaches; nor do we want to see greenwash in business water responses or dilution of the term water stewardship.

We don’t expect our brief to be the last word on water stewardship; on the contrary, we expect it to provoke discussion. Some of that will happen over the course of World Water Week, and more in forums like this. Join the dialogue with WWF in a 2Degrees Webinar on 18 September – we look forward to hearing from you.