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Corporate water management and stewardship: signs of evolution towards sustainability

Briefing/policy paper

Written by Peter Newborne

Hero image description: Shebele river, Ethiopia Image credit:UNICEF Ethiopia Image license:CC-BY-NC-ND

This Briefing note on corporate water management and ‘stewardship’ identifies tentative signs of evolution towards sustainability by leading companies, away from a focus purely on maximising short-term shareholder returns. Other companies can emulate and build on these to ensure the commercial health of their food and beverage production. A working hypothesis is offered as to the business case for sustainability as companies increasingly experience disruptions to their supply chains as a result of water problems.    

At the same time, the note cautions against corporate plans for growth that do not take account of water availability limits in water-stressed catchments for example, as well as the risk of misleading use by companies of volumetric water accounting tools that conceal water realities in the individual catchment context.  It is not enough to measure ‘water saved’ as a result of water efficiency measures; additional evidence is needed to demonstrate what associated social, economic and environmental benefits result and where they occur.    

This note follows the broad-based survey of water stewardship published by the same authors in November 2016. Water stewardship aims to promote shared responsibility in water management through dialogue and collaboration between water users, for greater water security. Private firms and companies are asked to participate in multi-stakeholder processes so as to be part of the solution to water problems, including those beyond just their own premises and operations.

Three years later – based on further research and many new conversations with representatives of corporates and other actors – the authors return to the subject to consider what experience and knowledge has been acquired and what advances have been made in water management and stewardship. They examine the drivers of corporate ‘water behaviour’ and ask what pieces of the water stewardship ‘puzzle’ are still missing.

Shebele river, Ethiopia
Image credit:UNICEF Ethiopia ~ Image license:CC-BY-NC-ND
Peter Newborne and James Dalton