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Report from Stockholm - World Water Week

Last week I was in Stockholm once again for World Water Week. This is the second year in a row that I have attended the mega-conference at the request of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development to moderate a session covering various water management tools.

The theme of this year’s conference was Feeding a Thirsty World, focusing on water and food security. A publication developed for the conference The Water and Food Nexus: Trends and Development of the Research Landscape begins with a succinct, simple set of statistics regarding the food/water challenge:

  • 70 per cent of all fresh water use is for irrigation
  • About 20 per cent of the world’s cropland is irrigated, yet irrigated agriculture supports 40 per cent of all food production
  • Drought is the no.1 threat to food supply in high-population developing countries
  • By 2050, the planet could have nearly 3 billion additional people to feed, with virtually no new cropland and no new sources of water

Add to those compelling facts that nearly one billion people currently suffer from hunger or malnutrition, and you can begin to appreciate the magnitude and criticality of the water challenge.

World Water Week’s organizers state that the conference attempts to cover as many aspects of the water and food security theme as possible. And it is safe to say that, no matter what your interest in water is, it’s likely that you can find multiple sessions that address it.

Our session, titled Towards Sustainability: Harmonizing Water Tools for Better Governance, included two panel discussions of various tools that have been developed to understand, manage and report on water impacts and risks. The first panel explored the demand side of tools, and featured two manufacturing companies (UPM and C&A), a water technology provider (GE Water), and a lender (International Finance Corporation). The second panel explored the supply side of tools, featuring six developers (Ceres, WBCSD, Water Footprint Network, WRI and WWF) and their tools. [Note – a recording of the session can be found on 2degreesnetwork and on our website]

The two panel discussions were rich in content and insights that went well beyond the “harmonizing” implied in the session title. We avoided going deep on the details of the tools themselves, and instead focused on their applications and the gaps between supply and demand. While I won’t attempt to recap the entire session, some of my key takeaways included the following:

  • Three perspectives on the water challenge: (1) the water challenge is complex and consequently there is no perfect information; (2) major, disruptive innovation is required; and (3) collective action is necessary.
  • Tools are just tools, and are useless without a commitment to act.
  • Think in terms of value chain, integration and partnerships.
  • There has been a proliferation of tools developed to help companies understand, manage and report on their water impacts and risk. In fact, the recent WBCSD report titled Water for Business (to which SustainAbility made a substantial contribution) describes 18 tools currently available, and that doesn’t begin to capture all of them.
  • With this proliferation comes some degree of confusion and difficulty in selecting the tool(s) that best apply to a company’s specific situation. Determining the right tool is in itself a challenge for companies.
  • While there is some degree of overlap among tools, each has its own features, data requirements, strengths and weaknesses
  • Every tool seemingly has its own framework, but most have common elements that include water use, availability, risk, taking action and reporting.
  • A rather unique framework is put forth by the CEO Water Mandate. It has developed a Water Stewardship Maturity model, which identifies the various stages that a company goes through, reflecting the amount of time and effort put in to water management:
    o Operational performance
    o Watershed interaction
    o Strategy development
    o Value chain improvements
    o Sustainable management and collective action
  • Many companies, even those perceived as leaders in sustainability, have not moved fully beyond operational performance. As one panellist noted, it’s hard to get a plant manager to go out and talk to farmers about managing water together.
  • Some harmonization of water tools would be useful – for example consistent metrics and consistent (or at least not conflicting) conclusions. However, variety among the tools is important as well, since different tools address different needs in the market.
  • While there is a common objective among the numerous tool developers – a sustainable water supply in all areas of the world – they are just beginning to work with each other. The opportunity is great for stronger collaboration.
  • There remains a need to link water management tools to financial tools to enable companies to understand the economics of investing in improvements.
  • Companies should think beyond managing their own risk, and consider also the responsibility they have to communities that do not – or may not in the future – have an adequate water supply.

So, the need remains high, the risk remains great, and the opportunities for better management of water resources remain numerous. While there is a plethora of effective tools available, ensuring sustainable water supplies for every community, every farmer, and every business remains a difficult, but essential task.

WBCSD, in collaboration with SustainAbility and IUCN, has recently released Water for Business – the first online guide specifically designed to help businesses manage water more sustainably by providing them with an overview of water tools and initiatives which they can use or engage with.

Jeff Erikson is a senior vice-president at independent think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility. For more SustainAbility blogs, go to

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