Steps to better water stewardship

The water stewardship journey involves learning, acting, doing and improving. These are the steps that companies can take to better manage freshwater resources.

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Steps to WWF's stewardship approach
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1. Water awareness – Gaining water awareness – in terms of how water impacts business and how business impacts water – is an ongoing and iterative step for all companies. A key facet of awareness is internal engagement. From the CEO to plant managers and suppliers and employees, building awareness can help companies ‘sell’ the water story and trigger action where it matters. Water awareness can also highlight how a company is perceived by others, including basin stakeholders, the press and consumers, which in turn influences the degree of risk that a particular company faces. External debates and their sector-specific implications will inform a company’s understanding of water and its associated risks, and will influence strategy and interventions.

At its most basic, water awareness must include a high level understanding of the global water challenges, the dependence a company has on freshwater and their exposure to water-related risks.

2. Knowledge of impact – Impact refers to the wider understanding of where a company’s ‘footprint’ is actually located in terms of direct (company operations) and indirect (supply chain) water dependencies. This generally includes measuring elements of water use (preferably through the WFN water footprint methodology), as well as an estimation of ‘impact’ on water resources. In this step, many companies begin to look beyond the fence line of their operations to understand the wider context of their water use, including global debates, peer examples and relevant watershed issues.

Hot-spot and risk analysis can enhance understanding of these impacts. These assessments should include the context of the basin, as well as the identification of high risk caused by water quantity and/or quality issues.

3. Internal action – Internal action implies that some element of learning and prioritization has occurred and a strategy (of some sort) is in place. For most companies, this is the more comfortable first step of getting one’s own house in order by outlining goals, targets, actions and plans that will help tackle the more immediate solutions to the problem, i.e. the low-hanging fruit. Internal action tends to incorporate the following crucial activities: company targets to reduce baseline water use; launch of water efficiency pilot projects; engagement with employees, consumers and marketing to address opportunities and risks; improvement of water quantity and quality reporting; and pollution prevention.

This is also the step where companies begin engaging their suppliers and assess how to take action to realize supply chain improvements through alternative sourcing, product innovation or improved management of water in the production of raw materials.

4. Collective action – In this step, a company recognises that working with others and at various scales (global fora to local water groups) is a necessary part of a robust water stewardship strategy. Collective action where company water use and associated risk is high can help mitigate basin-related risks, boost reputation on water issues, and build brand trust and loyalty. Stakeholders can be anyone from other users in a particular watershed, to other companies, NGOs, sector initiatives, public agencies and standard setting bodies.

Collective action can take the form of participation in public fora to address water management issues, support for freshwater conservation projects in watersheds of importance to company operations, partnerships with watershed groups, NGOs or other companies that pool technical, human and financial resources to conserve freshwater resources, and participation in collective actions to improve water management.

5. Influence governance – Depending on the sector and their exposure to risk, this step can be one of the trickiest for companies. It is also where engagement can bring about higher risk (perhaps for shorter periods), but is nonetheless a course of action that requires careful planning and thought.

The motivation for engagement usually stems from circumstances of direct impact to a company and will often consist of advocacy, influencing or lobbying, partnership, financial support, facilitation, institutional strengthening, etc. It may take place at the local, watershed, state or national level.

In some places, companies may choose to use this strategy if risk is high or the imperative for better management from public authorities is seen as a future risk. Most engagement activity will depend on the sector and its ability to influence, whether or not they are a strategic partner of government (energy, water provision) or if they are a manufacturer of goods. The opportunities through engagement can mean a significant reduction of risk, including social and legal license to operate, and clearer and consistent laws and regulations that govern company water use.

6. Better basin governance is a term, but it encompasses a belief within the freshwater team that we are creating incentives for people to act on water use – either directly and indirectly – and that through their engagement, better management and governance will be in place to protect the species and places we care about.

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