The business of water
More than ever before, freshwater is an issue for which partnership with the private sector has the potential to make a significant difference for our future. Nearly half of the global population is living without safe water or adequate sanitation, millions of homes are under the threat of recurring floods, and drought and desertification are undermining advances made in food production. The loss of up to 50 per cent of freshwater species over the past 30 years signals that one of the underlying causes of the freshwater crisis is the continuing degradation of land and water ecosystems.
The World Summit on Sustainable Development will take place in Johannesburg in August this year, ten years after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro set out to mobilise global action on natural resources. Agenda 21 — the result of the Earth Summit — listed more than 200 action points for freshwater that governments and the international community should take, but almost completely ignored the private sector as an actor with which to share this burden. Recent estimates published at the second World Water Forum in 2000 indicate that in addition to comprehensive water policy change, as much as US$180 billion per year may be required.
The Johannesburg Summit will rightly concentrate on poverty alleviation, which means that freshwater access and use must be central to the agenda. In contrast to the Earth Summit in Rio, the forthcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development has selected partnerships among stakeholders — the private sector in particular — as a central theme. This is perhaps as good an indicator as any of progress in the past 10 years. Though necessary, private sector involvement should not be used to bail out governments who have failed to deliver on their own commitments made in Rio ten years ago and confirmed in various international gatherings since then.
In the early 1990s a tiny proportion of the world received their tap water from companies with some degree of private sector involvement. The private sector is now involved in more than a hundred such projects worldwide, and the number is rising rapidly with the backing of leading development agencies such as the World Bank. Private investment in infrastructure and management of services is no panacea however, as there are still worrying issues concerning the ability of consumers to pay, access of rural populations, and sustainable resource management that require our attention. Indeed private sector delivery of water has been known to backfire when social and environmental conditions are not fully integrated in the process. Gérard Mestrallet, Chairman and CEO of Suez, one of the two largest companies providing water services world-wide, showed his appreciation of these issues in an open letter published in the Le Monde newspaper in November last year ("The Water Truce") when he noted that reducing poverty and offering proper education, health services, and economic opportunities for the world�s billions starts by tackling the issue of water access and quality.
In other business sectors, companies are starting to back up fine words with real action. Only last month HSBC — one of the world's top ten banks — announced an "Investing in Nature" partnership with WWF that will support sustainable river management in Brazil, China, the USA, and UK with a US$18.4 million programme. Such action will not only improve the long-term availability of water for people in these regions, but will do so in a way that also conserves and restores nature. In addition, HSBC and WWF will work together with other members of the financial community to develop an international protocol for the financing of projects that may have an impact on freshwater systems, to ensure they are sustainable.
In the food and household goods sector, some companies are showing willingness to go considerably beyond what is required by regulation. Unilever, a producer of many household names such as Birds Eye, Lipton, Surf, and Vaseline, recently calculated its "water imprint" on the world. Water use throughout its business cycle — raw materials, production, and consumer use — accounts for about one thousandth of total global water consumption, a significant figure for a single company. And moreover, calculations show that more than 95 per cent of this water use is associated with consumption of their products. Although some of Unilever's factories have reached a goal of zero emissions of wastewater, Anthony Burgmans, Co-Chairman of Unilever, has signalled publicly his company�s intention to go further by ensuring that by the time products get in the hands of the consumer, they draw only on the minimum amount of water required and result in least pollution.
Unfortunately not all companies are facing up to their environmental responsibilities. Many are still in denial — think of Exxon and climate change — or prefer simply to sponsor a few "feel-good" projects for water supply or tree planting for the benefit of a few "green" paragraphs in their annual report. Although such project sponsorship can deliver local benefits, it is meaningless in comparison with the potential gains to be made once a company starts to address its own footprint on the planet. Indeed, despite the encouraging signs noted above, business as a whole still has a long way to go to practise sustainability in the delivery of goods and services.
Environmentally sustainable ways of meeting our water needs are available, achievable, and worthwhile. In little over four months time, a group of leaders at the Johannesburg Summit could change the course of life for billions of people living in water deprivation. There need be no water wars if we make the business of water the business at hand.
By Paul Steele, Chief Operating Officer, WWF International
For more information:
Communications Manager, WWF's Living Waters Programme