Challenges and opportunities on the path to setting context-based water targets


The path to establishing a common approach to CBWT setting faces multiple challenges, perhaps most notably:

Data & monitoring. One of the main challenges when establishing water targets is the availability of basin data. The experience gained from developing global water tools, such as WWF’s Water Risk Filter, WRI’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, or TNC’s Urban Water Blueprint, has made it clear that there is a considerable lack of comparable and comprehensively reported basin-level water data. Bridging these gaps will require greater collaboration between the public and private sectors, increased investment in water data collection, and enabling more public access to the collected data. A lack of sufficient water-related data to fully understand the local water resources – including trends over time and consistent and accurate measurement of potential risks – makes setting scientifically defensible targets based on local conditions difficult in many places around the world. Many of the aforementioned tools are still too coarse to offer meaningful contextual data at the local scale.

Determining allocations. Even with highly resolute data, shared monitoring and determining allocations for water quantity and quality are by no means straightforward because they are often highly political. Public policy normally dictates legal allocations, whereas many of the initial methods in this space employ voluntary ”economic fair share” approaches to move toward basin sustainability. Unpacking these linkages and details will be critical.

Comparability among ongoing and proposed initiatives. Changing metrics can be challenging due to factors including requests from disclosure initiatives, consistency of reporting, a lack of understanding from investors and customers, and cultural inertia. Furthermore, there are few examples of strong enterprise-wide, context-based targets by leading companies that others can follow.

The value and cost of water. Water is often inexpensive to procure, and accordingly, senior management may not see water targets as material and may not prioritize CBWTs. However, water risks have the potential for highly significant financial impacts and thus justify significant investment in context-based targets and other efforts that can help mitigate risk. Furthermore, on-site investments are often expensive relative to the basin gains that can be had by investing in projects outside the facility. Budget managers will be well served by appreciating the relationship between the value of water and cost-effective risk mitigation.

Local stakeholder engagement. Context-based target setting will require more local involvement, engagement with stakeholders, and getting involved in the details of managing the local water resource. The additional resources required for stakeholder engagement may result in companies preferring to set global context-independent targets, rather than getting involved in the complexities of the local situation. However, local engagement is critical to identify, mitigate, and reduce water risks.

Public sector alignment challenges and opportunities. As described above, the public sector is often charged with water resource management, provision of water data, water monitoring, and the development and enforcement of local water regulations. In engaging with the public sector about water, companies will need to consider the following potential challenges. The maturity of local public water policy varies among countries, and some are not yet able to ensure the sustainability of the basin. Reasons are often rooted in inadequate water governance, especially concerning the lack of legal frameworks and strategic planning.1 Keeping that in mind, aligning closely with local public policy may not be the best option for companies, but that is not an excuse for inaction: sometimes it’s better to work with stakeholders to understand the water risks and thresholds of the basin. Accordingly, more “informal” water governance mechanisms – such as those that can be enabled by WWF’s Basin Report Cards2 – may prove useful in such circumstances.

  1. UNEP (2012). The UN-Water Status Report on the Application of Integrated Approaches to WaterResources Management. Available at report_2012.pdf
  2. WWF (2016). Basin Report Cards. Available at
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