How business counts: Aligning water sustainability metrics for the Sustainable Development Goals

Businesses can drive sustainable development by acting as stewards of water environments along their supply chains, says Stockholm Environment Institute researcher Chris West.

How do we make sure the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are actually met by 2030? This is one of the many tough questions facing the SDG drafters as they survey the sometimes patchy progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The discussion on ‘means of implementation’ for the SDGs has highlighted the make-or-break role of businesses, large and small, in realising the global transition to sustainable development over the coming 15 years.

The MDGs have been criticised for underplaying the role of business, not just in achieving poverty alleviation targets but also in the deeper processes that can either reduce or lock in poverty. The success of the SDGs, which recognise the need for transformative change, is likely to rely on enhanced engagement of the private sector.

For this to happen, business priorities, risk management considerations and socio-environmental accounting processes need to be – as far as possible – in line with, and complementary to, the objectives of sustainable development. A first step in this direction is to ensure that businesses and policymakers are talking the same language and measuring the same things in the same ways.

The Measure What Matters project, in which SEI and IIED are partners, is conducting a series of studies to better align measures and indicators of success in sustainability between businesses and national and global policy scales. The first study, on water sustainability measurement, is now open for expert consultation, to gather feedback and ideas.  

Water resources and sustainable development

The United Nations General Assembly Open Working Group (OWG) on the SDGs handed over its proposal  for a set of 169 targets grouped under 17 goals in July this year. Water sustainability gets its own goal: ‘Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’ (Goal 6). In line with the aim of making the SDGs more explicitly integrated than the MDGs, water-related targets also appear under other goals linked to, for example, health, food security and nutrition, and industrial output, which may rely heavily on water, not least in the production and processing of biomass-based raw materials. Notably, and somewhat surprisingly, it is nowhere linked with energy. (This fact is highlighted in a recent SEI Discussion Brief on how a nexus approach could strengthen integration in the SDGs, which was based on work for the Independent Research Forum (IRF2015) to advise the OWG.)

At national level too, water is receiving increased attention as an important component of green economic development. For example, at country level, water is beginning to be integrated into national accounting frameworks in a process facilitated by the standardisation of the System of Environmental-Economic Accounts for Water (SEEA-Water) by the United Nations in 2007.

Businesses could be key players in sustainable water resource management

In line with the aim of making the SDGs more explicitly integrated than the MDGs, water-related targets also appear under other goals linked to, for example, health, food security and nutrition, and industrial output, which may rely heavily on water, not least in the production and processing of biomass-based raw materials.

The business management adage ‘You can’t manage what you don’t measure’ of course applies to water sustainability. Many businesses have long measured, in various ways, the water resources they rely on for different processes - with a focus on water resource efficiency. However, recent calls for business to adopt water accounting systems from, for example, the CEO Water Mandate, the UN Global Compact, and CDP, reflect increased recognition of the fact that pressures on, and competition for, the world’s water resources will intensify with anticipated climate change impacts, and population and economic growth.

Businesses could make a vital contribution to sustainable development by going beyond considerations of water-related business risks to act as stewards of their local water environments (and that includes water environments along their supply chains). To do this they would need encouragement and incentives. But they would also need appropriate accounting tools that dovetail with national and international measures. A recent survey by the CDP found that even though businesses recognise the risks posed by water stress and scarcity to operational activities and supply chains, they do not have tools suitable to move towards a more holistic consideration of water stewardship. Recent initiatives such as the recent AWS International Water Stewardship Standard have gone some way towards filling this gap, but there is doubtless more to do. 

The Measure What Matters study has identified priorities and opportunities for making water sustainability measures more relevant and consistent across scales. It also makes some recommendations for how this could happen. Are they the right ones? Have we missed something? Read the Measure What Matters background report and join the consultation.

Chris West is a researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute. This post originally appeared on the Independent Research Forum blog.

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