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In Water Stewardship, It’s All About Context

Climate change is one of the defining challenges of our time. As the world commits to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we are hearing more and more about getting global­ levels down to a sustainable level.

The common refrain is: climate change is a global challenge that requires global action.

For example, 100 metric tons of carbon emitted in China will more or less have the same effect as 100 metric tons emitted in Chile. Both will accelerate the melting of the polar ice caps by roughly the same amount.

When we think about climate solutions, we must consider the actions of everyone, everywhere.

Water is a local issue

So when it comes to the global water crisis, it’s tempting to use similar reasoning. We focus on getting our global water withdrawals in line with global supply. Companies often strive to reduce their total, worldwide water use.

The problem is, unlike carbon, water is an inherently local issue.

There is no global water supply, per se. Rather, typically speaking, each river basin (or “watershed” or “catchment” depending on where you live) is a self-contained entity. Communities and company facilities operating in that river basin are reliant on that local water supply alone. Water users in China can’t tap into water supplies in Chile. If they completely overdraw their local supplies, they often have few alternatives.

Context-based water stewardship

This local nature of water challenges is a key consideration in corporate water stewardship.

From a company’s perspective, one of its facilities might be in a water-rich region. Another might be in a severely water-stressed region. These two facilities have entirely different water risk profiles and will require different degrees of action.

In fact, even two facilities that are both in severely water-stressed regions may require different types of action. One facility might be in a river basin where water pollution makes water sources unusable or costly to treat. Another might be in a river basin where over-consumption has pushed water supplies past their sustainable limit. These two facilities will require completely different types of action – one focused on eliminating pollution, the other focused on getting water use in line with local supply.

There is no “one size fits all approach” to water risk.

So while it’s always helpful for a company to reduce its total water use, this may not necessarily mitigate water risk or contribute to local water policy goals or the Sustainable Development Goals to the extent the company hoped.

Stewardship solutions that fully address a company’s water risk are necessarily context-based. Truly impactful water use reduction efforts focus on areas where water supply is a critical issue. Likewise, transformative pollution mitigation focuses on areas where ecosystems and communities are particularly vulnerable to pollution.

Considering context-based water targets

Water is an inherently local issue.

It’s this local nature of water challenges that has inspired us at the CEO Water Mandate, CDP, The Nature Conservancy, Pacific InstituteWorld Resources Institute, and WWF International to develop our new discussion paper: Exploring the Case for Context-Based Water Targets.

The paper explains why context is so important to water stewardship. It makes the case for why and how we can develop guidance that helps companies understand their local water context and set meaningful targets.

We want to help companies develop and implement context-based water targets that:

  1. Situate a company’s water goals within the sustainability limits of relevant river basins,
  2. Account for the current and future needs of those river basins, and
  3. Advance public policy objectives relevant in that locale.

We believe this work is absolutely critical in helping companies implement cost-effective, strategic water stewardship that truly mitigates water risk and contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals. Because a water stewardship strategy that doesn’t account for context is no strategy at all.

Read the discussion paper in full at: http://www.ceowatermandate.org/files/context-based-targets.pdf.

Find more tools and resources that help you understand context at: http://ceowatermandate.org/toolbox/discover-next-steps/context/.

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