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Drought in India: Can businesses play a role in collective action for water security?

By intervening in meaningful ways to tackle India’s water crisis, businesses would not just mitigate operational and supply chain risk for themselves but have a wider basin-level influence.

Fisherman work the Bhavani river in Tamil Nadhu.
Fisherman work the Bhavani river in Tamil Nadhu. Water quality is an issue that has been consistently found across river basins in India. Image: Rashmi Kulranjan

On 15 September, the southern Indian state of Karnataka made it official – a majority of the state was drought hit. Even as parts of the world face devastating floods, there is a very real threat of aquifers dipping and rivers running dry in India as El Niño tampers with the all-important southwest monsoon. This news comes close on the heels of the Indian Meteorological Department’s announcement that August 2023 was the driest and hottest on record.  

These are worrying developments for the world’s most populous country in terms of drinking water shortages and impact on agriculture, a sector that sustains millions of people’s livelihoods.  

Industries and businesses will also be affected. But they also play an important role in addressing the problem because, one, they have the money to invest in solutions that could achieve long-term impact and, two, because these carbon- and water-intensive sectors contribute to pollution and scarcity in specific watersheds and climate change on a planetary scale. It is critical that this sector gets involved and actively engages with other actors to solve the big environmental challenges we face. 

The ESG push for action 

So how can businesses drive water-related collective action and ensure a positive impact in India’s river basins? Businesses have started participating in sustainability efforts through mechanisms such as the Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) framework. This is seen as essential for avoiding both water challenges in river basins as well as operational disruptions and costs to the business itself. 

There is also a policy-level push. In India, the markets regulator, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), has mandated the top 1,000 listed companies to disclose their sustainability reports from 2023. Coupled with the requirement to invest part of their profits in corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, there is clearly an impetus to participate in sustainability efforts. It’s one thing to build a bank of funds but quite another to ensure it is channelled correctly.  

To avoid greenwashing and achieve meaningful change, it is critical to direct business to align their efforts with those of other local stakeholders in a region. It is not only a moral obligation; companies stand to gain – both in terms of higher profits and its brand image – by investing in sustainable practices. 

The problems we have are too large and complex to act alone

Given the complexity of the water problem especially in countries like India with diverse landscapes and socio-economic conditions, this is not going to be easy. Identifying performance metrics and targets becomes the first step to enable businesses to take steps tailored to each region’s unique context. Multi-stakeholder collaborations then become an important tool to not just identify problem areas but also implement effective solutions. It allows for local knowledge, capabilities and innovative financing mechanisms to converge. 

Studies have shown that the traditional way of top-down sectoral-based water governance and management mechanisms is incapable of addressing worsening water challenges, which are far too complex to be solved by one stakeholder alone. The siloed form of governance that is predominant in the water sector often leads to overlaps or duplication; there is little coordination resulting in ineffective solutions being implemented.  

Collaboration on resources, efforts and solutions between various sectors is necessary for ensuring the sustainability and resilience of resources. Failing to integrate different sectors in the governance system often results in resource-based conflicts. A collaboration of this sort will not only result in the inclusion of diverse voices and insights to solve an issue, but also provide technical and financial resources which may be limited in the traditional form of fragmented governance. Pooling in resources will also ensure less risk to one party. 

Technical fixes are insufficient

Among the different water challenges, let’s look at one example – the issue of water quality is one that has been consistently found across river basins in India. Over the years, the country’s central government has spent several millions of rupees on addressing water pollution through various projects such as the National Mission for Clean Ganga, Nadanthai Vaazhi Cauvery Scheme (Tamil Nadu state in southern India) and National River Conservation Plan (NRCP) Scheme. The solutions are rarely effective or long-lasting.   

Only implementing technical solutions like building more centralised treatment plants without holistically understanding on-ground problems like the lack of sewerage network and solid waste management plans, coupled with inefficient monitoring have resulted in the underperformance of projects like these.  

The Ramganga Mitras programme started by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), on the other hand, is an example of a successful collective action initiative to address the issue of river health. The project was started in 2013 with emphasis on citizen-driven action for river conservation. It involved various user groups, communities, government agencies along with business. The diversity in participation also allowed for multiple approaches to be considered from a focus on climate change adaptation, expertise in sustainable water management as well as industrial stewardship. The project thus tackled head-on the problem of lack of participation and dialogue between water users.

Businesses could play an important role in multi-stakeholder efforts 

In an equation similar to the one at play for the Ramganga Mitras programme, business could play a central role in funding, training and implementation activities within the affected river basins. They could contribute by funding nature-based solutions, where necessary; promoting innovative technologies like pump solarisation, in regions where it is projected to result in increased yield and not worsen water scarcity; and introduce new funding mechanisms such as water trusts and drought funds for flexible cross-sectoral water allocation.  

In terms of training, businesses could create interactive tools for sanitation education, offer training in modern agriculture and irrigation, provide maintenance skill programmes for treatment facilities, and train government officials in Integrated Water Resources Management. This would go a long way to addressing prevent knowledge and skill gaps.  

For on-ground implementation, businesses can invest in and deploy drinking water and purification systems, while also promoting groundwater replenishment through techniques like rainwater harvesting and treating wastewater to a high enough quality to safely recharge aquifers. Additionally, they can offer technical support to communities accessing government funding for water projects.  

By piloting wastewater treatment and nature-based solutions, they can demonstrate effective approaches. Moreover, businesses can contribute by creating and managing crowdsourced dashboards that provide crucial data on water quality and quantity for monitoring and decision-making 

But a first step for any intervention, would be for the business to first identify existing multi-sector coalitions in the region and their theory of change to address the water crisis. This way, they would identify existing gaps and get involved where there is a dire need for support. This manner of meaningful collaboration will – in the long term – help businesses not just mitigate operational and supply chain risk for themselves, but also have a wider basin-level influence.

Rashmi Kulranjan is a Bengaluru-based researcher at the Water, Environment, Land and Livelihoods (WELL) Labs, a research and innovation centre at the Institute for Financial Management and Research (IFMR). She is also a PhD scholar at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). She and her colleagues recently published reports for the Water Resilience Coalition on challenges and opportunities for catalysing corporate water stewardship in three major river basins in India – Ganga, Cauvery and Krishna. 

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