Taking collective action further for transforming freshwater use

The World Water Week in Stockholm (25-30 August) is a great annual bellwether for the water sector: trending topics, pioneering organizations and a sense of where the sector is heading. Business is part of the discourse within the water sector, and the business presence at this event has been increasing year-on-year, together with various business-aligned organizations that showcase initiatives, reports and tools.

Most of the business contributions to the event are about ‘collective action’, the process of bringing together public and private sector actors around common water challenges and developing solutions. Several companies launched their new water strategy, announced new initiatives or showcased their work during Stockholm Water Week.

Whilst many companies share water challenges in specific settings (e.g. basin), either through their operations, supply chains or consumer markets, the number of companies that took to the stage to demonstrate collective action amongst business was few.

Creating pre-competitive platforms, where numerous companies come together to assess, plan and act, is a significant gap. Without them, the effort of one company in a geography could hinder, undermine, or even directly oppose the actions of another company working independently. WBCSD’s partnership with the 2030 Water Resources Group is a good example of where this kind of collective action is taking place.

This also talks to a big opportunity that we, collectively, need to step up to. There are two broad pathways for collective action: incremental and transformative.

Incremental pathways embrace water stewardship approaches that drive (local) water efficiencies, and there are great examples of this. However, we know, with a growing population, which requires more food and more energy, the demand for water will increase. Incremental efficiency gains are not enough. For transformation, we need collective action that drives systems change. Water is often the victim of poor agricultural, economic and industrial policy – we need to grow the rights crops in appropriate landscapes, value the contribution of water to the economy, society and environment and cluster industries to enable circular water management.

The role of business, to have impact at scale, is to come together, in a pre-competitive space and create a dialogue with policy makers, farmers and society to figure out how to manage the synergies and trade-offs of disrupting these systems. And, as much as it is important for business to be part of the water discourse, it is equally important that the water sector is part of the business and agricultural discourse. The water sector needs to also step-up and reach out to these sectors. In response to this need for transformative collective action, WBCSD will be working on two new initiatives in the coming few months around wastewater and water efficiency in homes.

Watch this space.

Some other key takeaways and things to look out for:

Freshwater planetary boundary – the freshwater planetary boundary is being radically revised. The existing freshwater planetary boundary is controversial, how can you have a meaningful global threshold with such spatial and temporal differences as we see with water? A global research effort is underway to revise the boundary, that defines four core functions of water (hydroclimatic regulation, hydrogeological regulation, storage, and transport) in conjunction with five water stores (surface water, atmospheric water, soil moisture, groundwater and frozen water). This work will have important implications on the Water Science Based Target that is currently in development and will drive future policy direction for water.

Water and climate – the theme of next year’s event will be water and climate and WBCSD will be engaging with its members to support contributions to its work on water. With the important milestone of UNFCCC COP26 happening a couple of months later in late 2020, this will be an important moment to refine a business position for climate and water

Water and value – valuing water is once again a hot-topic, this time, it seems to have more steam behind it than in the past. The Dutch government recently launched the Valuing Water Initiative (which WBCSD is a partner of) and the UN-Water theme for world water day in 2021 will be valuing water. It’s still a mystical topic for some, during a session in Stockholm on valuing water, discussion points ranged from subsidies to gender, from data to Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM). The challenge is to move from concept to practice, and again, the importance of collective action in that all should have a coherent and consistent understanding and approach to valuing water.

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