The Water Stewardship Journey
The Water Stewardship Journey framework offers a way to understand the basic components and common (though not universal) sequence of a comprehensive water stewardship strategy – from operational efficiencies to risk assessment to value chain engagement and beyond. In doing so, companies can consider how far along they are and what possible next stages might be.
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What is the Water Stewardship Journey?
The Water Stewardship Journey illustrates the range of activities water stewards conduct ideally. Companies that effectively implement all aspects of the Progression manage much of their water risk and actively support sustainable water management.
Activities at the top of the Progression tend to be the easiest to implement. Activities at the bottom tend to be more challenging and complex to implement – yet often are more impactful. Though many companies will find it most practical to follow this progression sequentially from top to bottom, you may find it more strategic to pursue them in a different order, or all at the same time.
Steps: Understand water stress | Assess value chain
Steps: Collective action | Engage value chain
How do I determine helpful next steps for my company?
In order to connect to the most relevant resources, first identify where your company resides on the Water Stewardship Journey. If in doubt, keep in mind that many facilities implement activities in the Operations category even before a specific corporate policy is in place. Once you have determined what activities you are currently implementing, you can then:
- Search for additional resources on those topics to deepen your existing practice
- Pursue activities in the next category to the right to expand your stewardship practice.
You need not implement any activity perfectly before moving on to other parts of the Journey. In fact, overly focusing on activities listed under “Operations” can be a detriment to robust stewardship if doing so prevents you from pursuing those listed under “Strategy” and “Engagement”. Generally speaking, the sooner you can begin implementing these advanced activities, the better, so long as you have build your capacity to do so and have buy-in and support from internal and external stakeholders.
Diving More Deeply into Each Phase
Each step of the Journey comes with its own challenges, approaches, and benefits. Here we delve into each phase shedding light on the key considerations for each.
Optimize water efficiency, wastewater treatment, and WASH services in your owned-and-operated sites.
Operations activities refer to improving water management practices at your owned-and-operated facilities and corporate offices. Facility managers often implement these techniques simply as good practice for employee health, efficiency, and cost reduction before a broader corporate strategy is developed and implemented. Many of these practices are low-cost, easy to implement, and have short returns on investment.
Provide WASH services in the workplace
- Ensure clean and sufficient drinking water
- Maintain clean and sufficient toilets or other sanitation services
- Provide handwashing supplies and promote good hygiene
- Boost productivity
- Maintain license to operate
Providing consistent access to clean drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene in the workplace is a key obligation in water stewardship. Companies that fail to do so hinder their productivity and reputation and infringe upon their employees’ human rights. Though many in the Global North may take such services for granted, more than 700 million people worldwide are without access to improved drinking water and approximately 2.5 billion people are without stable access to a toilet or other form of sanitation (UNICEF and WHO 2014). This crisis has led to disastrous human health outcomes, a perpetual cycle of poverty, and polluted rivers and water sources. Global economic losses associated with inadequate sanitation alone are estimated at US$260 billion per year (WSP 2005, Sanitation Drive 2015 2014a).
Providing WASH services in the workplace is not just about building toilets or drinking fountains; it requires ongoing monitoring and maintenance to ensure adequate services over the long term. This includes:
- Regularly cleaning toilets and fountains
- Testing drinking water for contaminants
- Maintaining toiletry and other sanitary supplies
- Installing bathing facilities
- Providing soap and other disinfectants
- Offering awareness and training to encourage healthy behaviors
WBCSD’s WASH in the Workplace Self-Assessment Tool is a good reference for providing safe and sufficient access to WASH services for employees.
Measure and monitor water practices
- Use water meters to detect leaks and eliminate wasteful uses
- Regularly test wastewater quality
- Develop KPIs related to water use and pollution
- Track water performance over time
- Gather data that inform strategic decisions
- Demonstrate progress to stakeholders
In order to drive efficiency and pollution reduction, facilities and entire companies alike must first understand how they use water and what contaminants are in their wastewater. Such measurement and analysis allows you to assess where action is needed most, and thus invest strategically and track your progress over time. What gets measured gets managed.
For facilities, measurement and monitoring involves:
- Installing water meters
- Regularly testing and analyzing wastewater quality
- Understanding the results of efficiency and pollution reduction efforts
For entire companies, measurement and monitoring involves gathering such information across facilities to get a big picture view of your company’s water use and wastewater discharge. These practices also offer a starting point from which to understand how your water management practice affects human rights.
Critical to effective measuring and monitoring is developing Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) or metrics that allow you to know when you are making genuine progress in using water more efficiently and reducing your pollution. The Corporate Water Disclosure Guidelinesoffer a variety of helpful KPIs that are applicable to a wide range of companies.
Drive efficiency and pollution reduction
- Develop water management plans for every operation
- Implement water-efficient processes, technologies, and behaviors
- Manage chemical inputs and treat and reuse wastewater
- Reduce operational costs
- Maintain license to operate
- Build resilience to water stress
Measuring and monitoring water practices is meaningless unless it drives actual actions that reduce your water use and improve water quality. Such actions reduce your company’s contribution to water stress and therefore reduce perceptions that the company is irresponsible. They also make you more resilient; if you can produce more goods with less water, then you will be much better prepared to operate in the face of ensuing water stress. Finally, these practices simply save money. By using less water, you pay less for water. In 2014, UK drinks company Diageo Plc has reduced the volume of its water withdrawals by nearly 1 million cubic meters and estimates the cost savings associated with this reduction to be approximately US$3.2 million (CDP’s Global Water Report 2014).
You can achieve greater water use efficiency and reduce pollution through many different means. You can invest in major water recycling systems that radically reduce their water use by recirculating the same water through their facility over and over. However, you can also simply form water management committees tasked with identifying leaks and identify innovative ways to save water without investing in any new equipment. Many irrigators, for example, save incredible amounts of water simply by irrigating at cooler times of day. The most efficient facilities adopt an ethos of continuous improvement whereby they constantly look for ways to improve their game.
Pollution reduction is often a more costly endeavor requiring the construction of new wastewater treatment facilities. However, many companies have made great strides in water quality simply by shifting to less toxic production materials.
Assess river basin and value chain circumstances to understand risk and impacts
Another aspect of the Stewardship Progression is developing a deeper and more dynamic understanding of the water context in which you operate. This involves assessing the degree of water stress in the river basins in which you operate, the effectiveness of water governance in those areas, and the broader water-related circumstances of your value chain. Ultimately, this enables you to identify the most strategic actions you can take to manage your water risks and reduce your negative impacts on people and ecosystems.
Understand water-stressed and high-risk basins
- Assess degree of water stress facing all operations
- Prioritize operations based on degree of stress
- Develop robust understanding of specific water challenges in priority operations
- Gauge water risk and opportunities due to basin conditions
- Gather information needed to develop effective collective actions
The water-related impacts you create and risks you faced are inextricably linked to the river basin or watershed context in which you operate. A thousand gallons of water used in water-rich Finland will likely have much less damaging effects than the same amount used in water-scarce Namibia. Because of this, understanding which river basins in which you operate are water-stressed or otherwise more likely to create business risk is an essential aspect of stewardship.
When combined with assessments of which facilities use the most water and which are most critical to business success, such an analysis enables you to identify the most strategic, cost-effective stewardship actions. By understanding the nature of water stress in a given area, you can also understand what type of action is needed: whether you need to use water more efficiently, promote community WASH services, support better governance structures, improve water quality, or pursue some other type of action.
There are now a variety of free, online tools that help you identify which of your facilities and/or suppliers are most exposed to water stress, including:
Use these tools to conduct an initial assessment. Once this has been done, you can then conduct more in-depth analyses in high-risk river basins by conducting watershed assessments and engaging with local stakeholders with knowledge of the situation.
Assess risks and impacts in the value chain
- Conduct comprehensive water use assessment for company and its value chain
- Assess all suppliers’ exposure to water stress
- Prioritize suppliers based on severity of stress
- Gauge risks and opportunities stemming from value chain conditions
- Gather information needed to engage suppliers and consumers
Companies seeking to address water risks and impacts comprehensively also look at the value chain context in which they operate. Though you may not use much water in your own offices or operations, you can still be exposed to significant water risks if the supplies on which you rely are water-intensive and/or grown in water-stressed areas, or if your products are water-intensive or used in water-stressed areas. For many companies, the vast majority of their water use is indirect, meaning it occurs outside their own operations. This is especially true of companies with agricultural supply chains. By understanding risks and impacts in the value chain, you can determine whether significant supplier or customer engagement is needed to address water risks, and whether such action may be a greater priority than operational improvements.
You can begin to understand your value chain context by assessing the embedded water use and quality impacts of your products, from the production of raw materials, to manufacturing, to distribution, and product end use. As part of this process, you will likely need to collect water performance and context data from your suppliers. These analyses provide a more holistic picture of a product’s potential negative impacts on people and ecosystems and therefore a better idea of where in the production process action is most needed. Life Cycle Assessment and Water Footprint Assessment are popular methodologies for such assessments.
Incorporate water considerations into core business strategies and functions
Integrate water management into business strategy
- Incorporate water into business’ risk assessment processes
- Develop comprehensive water policy and strategy
- Set targets for water-related KPIs
- Respond to water risks proactively and systematically
- Raise water awareness within company
Like most corporate sustainability practices, water stewardship is most effective and most valuable when it is systematically integrated into your business strategy, rather than tacked on as a CSR or philanthropy function outside of the business’ core activities. For many businesses, water is such an important input into its operations and those of its suppliers, that a strategy to ensure sufficient and consistent supplies of it is not only helpful, but arguably required for long-term business viability. Having a strategy and policy in places help ensure you have the water and license to operate needed over the long-term.
In practice, integrating water management into business strategy means many things, including (but not limited to):
- Setting water-related performance targets
- Creating accountability measures and incentives for water-related goals among upper management
- Establishing a water task force among upper management to track and address water issues over time and bring them to the board as needed
- Developing water assessment and action policies that are applied across a company’s facilities and operations
A company’s water strategy and policy will certainly differ from company to company. Ultimately, the most effective strategies enable you to understand how your company relates to water; to track changes and trends over time; and to respond in an effective, timely, and coherent manner. The most effective strategies grow from a dynamic understanding of your specific water risks and impacts and are tailored to identify these issues and prioritize them over other water issues that are of lesser importance to your business and stakeholders.
The Ceres Aqua Gauge offers a helpful framework for developing a water strategy, among other things.
Connect with key partners to leverage sustainable water management and manage the root causes of water risk
Truly transformational, comprehensive stewardship practice requires you to actively engage with others who share the same water challenges and value chain actors within your sphere of influence. Such engagement enables you to advance sustainable water management beyond your own gates and in doing so better address the root causes of water stress and water risk. Engagement activities may be challenging and complex, but are often the most impactful and important water stewardship activities.
Advance sustainable water management and collective action
- Prepare for action & identify potential partners
- Conduct impactful, mutually-beneficial collective actions
- Engage governments to encourage robust water governance
- Address root causes of water stress and water risk
- Build strong relationships with key partners
- Establish leadership in industry sector
One of the two key forms of engagement is partnering with other businesses, government agencies, communities, NGOs, and others with shared water challenges in order to address these challenges in a more effective, efficient, and holistic manner. This “collective action” allows organizations with diverse sets of expertise, knowledge, technology, and financial connections to collaborate on water issues that affect them all (such as collective impacts they might have).
The key benefits of collective action to promote sustainable water management include:
- An expanded pool of expertise, capacity, or financial resources focused on fostering change
- More durable outcomes with strong support from the engaged parties
- Establishment and maintenance of credibility and legitimacy with key interested parties, resulting in improved legal and social license to operate
- Stronger, more sustainable water governance by engaging multiple stakeholders
Collective action can take many forms, from simply exchanging information and data, to seeking advice, to engaging in multi-year partnerships with complex organizational and governance structures.
While collective action can be an incredibly powerful tool and arguably is a necessary component of any robust stewardship plan, it also brings with it many challenges and risks. The decision to partner with others brings with it expectations of prolonged engagement, vulnerability to a loss in reputation if there are negative outcomes, and the need to devote significant resources and time to achieve success. Because of this, companies considering collective action anticipate a wide range of risks and uncertainties to determine when potential benefits outweigh the costs.
The CEO Water Mandate’s Guide to Water-Related Collective Action offers a starting point for understanding collective action and beginning to prepare for action. Guide to Managing Water Integrity in Water Stewardship Initiatives offers insight into how to ensure highly-effective and mutually-beneficial partnerships. The Water Action Hub offers a platform that can help you identify collective action partners with similar interests.
Facilitate improved performance in the value chain
- Establish communication and trust with suppliers and consumers
- Raise water awareness among suppliers and consumers
- Incentivize improved stewardship performance among suppliers and consumers
- Build mutually-beneficial relationships with key business partners
- Manage significant component of company’s water risks and impacts
A second form of engagement is connecting with your value chain partners, especially your suppliers and customers, to promote improved water performance and manage risks and impacts. By facilitating improved water performance among suppliers, you can further insulate your company from water risk and make production disruptions less likely. By encouraging customers to use your product more sustainably, you can reduce your product’s indirect water use while boosting your reputation and brand value.
You can facilitate improved performance in your supply chain through many different means. For example, you can:
- Embed expectations for water-related targets in supplier contracts
- Create supplier scorecards and reward higher performers
- Provide guidance and assistance to suppliers
Many suppliers only need to be provided the business case for action in order to motivate needed change. Supply chain engagement at its core is about using your position of influence to drive meaningful action that is mutually beneficial to the company, the supplier, and the communities in which they operate.
Value chain engagement can also mean engaging consumers to promote more sustainable use, reuse, or disposal of your products. For example, an apparel company might suggest that consumers only wash their jeans once every month.
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Engage stakeholders to understand their perspectives and garner feedback on water practices
Achieve meaningful and inclusive dialogue with stakeholders
- Identify and engage stakeholders representing full range of interests
- Establish ongoing stakeholder engagement processes
- Report regularly and transparently
- Build credibility and trust
- Gain new knowledge and insight into risks, impacts, and possible solutions
- Develop strategies that truly address stakeholder needs
To be truly effective, stewardship must understand and respond to the interests of your stakeholders. For example, a company might invest in water use efficiency, but if local communities are most threatened by water pollution, its license to operate is still in jeopardy. Similarly, engagement with suppliers will likely be most effective when it helps suppliers meet their own goals. As such, developing systems to regularly communicate with stakeholders is a critical aspect of stewardship. It allows your company to build credibility and trust with potential partners and gain knowledge and insight that informs your water strategies.
Continuous dialogue with stakeholders can be achieved in many ways and will certainly vary depending on the company’s circumstances and those of its stakeholders. Examples of common communication mechanisms include internal employee memos, annual online and print reports, community forums, contracts, and online suggestion / feedback mechanisms.
Stakeholder engagement will likely be ineffective if it does not engage a full range of interests, including those whom your company does not currently consider close allies. Stakeholder groups that are commonly of value to engage include (but not limited to):
- Communities potentially affected by your operations
- Local NGOs
- Local public agencies
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- The Water Stewardship Journey framework helps companies and others understand the basic components and a common sequence of water stewardship activities.
- Generally speaking, companies will begin getting their own house in order by implementing efficiencies at their manufacturing facilities, agricultural sites, and/or corporate offices.
- Typically, while critical, value chain engagement and place-based collective action are reserved for later in a company’s water stewardship maturity.