Local Context



Grounding Water Stewardship Efforts in Watersheds and Aquifers

In conducting their evaluations of water risk, companies have come to appreciate that water risk ‘hot spots’ can be quite localized in nature, meaning that a facility located in one watershed may be facing serious water security or pollution issues (and therefore water risk) but another facility in an adjacent watershed may not encounter much water risk at all.

This localized nature of water risk is explained by the simple fact that each of the water resources depended upon – rivers, lakes, or aquifers – largely function as separate “water accounts.” These water accounts are replenished by rain or snow draining within their associated basins, and they are polluted or depleted by human or natural uses (see Figures 4a and 4b). When the total volume of uses or losses from a water account approaches the volume being replenished, the likelihood of water shortages escalates. When the amount of pollution being introduced into a water source exceeds a freshwater ecosystem’s ability to absorb or process the waste, impacts to human or ecosystem health become more likely.

Figure 4a

Rivers and lakes are replenished by water draining from a watershed, as pictured here. Water is depleted from a river or lake by both human uses and natural processes. The ultimate limit of water extraction from a river or lake is a dry bed (i.e., the water’s all gone), but ecological, social, and other impacts will usually arise long before that physical limit is reached. Similarly, pollution doesn’t need to completely fill a river or lake before serious problems emerge (Illustration adapted from Chasing Water by Brian Richter, Island Press 2014)

Figure 4b

An aquifer is an underground basin containing water. The water in an aquifer can be extracted using groundwater wells and pumps. The water in aquifers originates from rain or melting snow that percolates into the ground to recharge the aquifers. When water is consumed from the aquifer faster than it is being recharged, the water level (i.e., water table) in the aquifer will be lowered, sometimes to the point that wells can no longer reach the water or it becomes too costly to pump the water from great depths. The water in an aquifer can also become contaminated by pollution percolating into the aquifer, perhaps to the point of making the water unusable or costly to clean. (Illustration adapted from Chasing Water by Brian Richter, Island Press 2014)

A company’s overall exposure to water risk is therefore largely driven by the sum of what is happening in each individual water source being used or affected by the company – either through its own operations or those of its suppliers. For example, water scarcity in a particular area can impact the ability of a company’s facility located in this region to meet demands for products that are manufactured at that site or to do so in a profitable manner. In a similar way, a drought in an in area where an agricultural ingredient is sourced may impact a company’s ability to purchase adequate volumes of the ingredient, or result in price increases due to shortages. These impacts are likely to increase the cost of production and potentially decrease net profit. These risks are discussed in considerable detail in the WWF report on “Understanding Water Risks” (Orr et al., 2009).

Because water risks tend to emerge from individual watersheds or aquifers, it is often critical to ground water stewardship strategies in those particular places. To be effective, these strategies should be based on an assessment of water stress in each location of concern. We note here that the watershed or aquifer where a company extracts water may not be the same basin where the company discharges its wastewater; both locations may be of concern. We also note that identifying the specific water resources being affected by use or discharge may be difficult to discern initially, particularly if the facility or farm is connected to a public water supply or wastewater collection system run by another agency. However, this information should be readily accessible by contacting the appropriate water utilities.


Getting to Know Your Local Water Community

The Guide to Water-Related Collective Action published by the CEO Water Mandate (2013) offers a number of reasons and motivations for becoming involved in collection action. One of the most obvious reasons – but not explicitly acknowledged in the Guide – is the simple fact that the task of restoring water quantity or quality conditions to a more desirable level is usually a bigger job than any one company can tackle acting unilaterally. This raises an important question: just how much effort will be enough to reduce the company’s and nearby communities’ and ecosystems’ risk to an acceptable level?

The answers will likely be somewhat different for each individual water user or stakeholder within the water community. But assuming that collective action will be necessary, it is going to be important to gain an understanding of the community of individuals, companies, or governments that are sharing the same water resource(s). This includes water users living or working both within and outside of the watershed boundary, because exports or discharges of water outside of a watershed are not uncommon.

The Water Action Hub developed by the CEO Water Mandate can be helpful in identifying other companies and actors that share or have interest in the same water resources. However, to build a successful water stewardship plan, you will likely need a much more complete picture of who is sharing the water resource, how much they are using or discharging, and how they are putting the water to use. If water use is regulated through the issuance of water rights, entitlements, or permits, a listing of water users (by water resource) should be available publicly from the government entity responsible for issuing such rights.

Once the key interests within the water community have been identified, the Guide to Water-Related Collective Action should be helpful in determining how that group of interests within a community might be convened and mobilized for collective water stewardship action.

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