From black to blue and green to brown: water stress is starting to bite

 By Tytti Kaasinen, Senior Engagement Manager at GES

It’s got the opinion-leaders, catchy one-liners and statistics on its side: water crises were ranked as the top risk by the World Economic Forum earlier this year, many have heard the memorable “if climate change is the shark, then water is its teeth”, and the projections for groundwater levels as well as the frequency of draughts and floods paint a very bleak picture. But why is water stress still climate change’s little brother? That there are risks seems to be getting recognition, but what does this actually mean to people and companies? What is being done about it? Is anything being done about it?

The annual World Water Week (WWW) was recently held in Stockholm, this year celebrating its admirable silver jubilee, and it truly is a multi-stakeholder event with attendees ranging from heads of state to grassroots campaigners, from CEOs to NGOs, and from diplomats to innovators. This was my third time at the conference and I feel that the investor community has been somewhat underrepresented so far, but I anticipate more and more to come along in the coming years as the water impacts start showing on the bottom lines.

This year’s WWW theme was ‘Water for development’ which might immediately put off some companies and investors presuming that the discussions would not be business-relevant. But they would be very wrong in doing that. Regardless of the angle, water permeates all aspects of the society and economy, and through its links to food, energy and security poses very material structural risks globally, regionally and locally. Development, in turn, is of course particularly topical right now thanks to 2015 being the Millennium Development Goals’ (MDGs) deadline and the fact that the world will soon agree on the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), where the private sector is expected to take a much bigger role than in the MDGs and where water and sanitation will be one of the focus areas.

Reflecting the vastness of both water and development, the week’s programme was packed with discussions and presentations that left me encouraged and inspired, but I can’t help also feeling a slight concern about what exactly will eventually tip the balance from words to action, and how much longer will it take to get there. Does the water risk really have to become a water crisis and tensions flare up to conflicts before people are compelled to act? When it comes to the private sector, the awareness is increasing but some companies still think they are not exposed to water-related risks because they do not use a lot of it, so for starters they must take a broader view on what is happening in the catchment areas around their facilities – and their suppliers’ facilities – and how this affects them. And those who have ticked the box of developing a water policy need to understand that it does not help much unless supported with practical management responses and leadership, and that there must not be a disconnection between the company level water strategy and how it is (not) implemented and understood at the facility level.

On the other hand, I also heard about actors that have assumed a proactive and holistic approach and are leading the way in coming up with clever and scalable solutions. They have understood that water stewardship is not about philanthropics but linked to business strategy and long-term interests, and that in order to remain viable you may need to put resources in something with a rather poor immediate return on investment. Water in itself is usually cheap or free, but the business case goes beyond price and costs: water often has distinct value to both companies themselves and other users, which should be built in the calculations. Appreciating that they very much depend on the actions of others, particularly the regulators and those they physically share the river basin with, the water winners of the future do not even consider it enough to be a clean fish in a dirty pond, but are actively stimulating discussion and cooperation within and across both hydrological and administrative boarders.

A lack of technological solutions is not the problem and water crisis is not unavoidable. Ultimately, what is needed is changes in attitudes and culture, and the breaking down of certain psychological barriers standing in the way of a water-efficient world. While “blue is the new black” is a useful reminder of the value of water, possibly exceeding that of oil in the future, an example of a necessary shift in thinking comes from the draught-ridden California, traditionally associated with lush suburban lawns. There people have internalised the need for everyone to take responsibility and those not heeding the instructions to stop watering their lawns are frowned upon. In California, brown is now the new green.

One thought on “From black to blue and green to brown: water stress is starting to bite

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *