Posted on 15 March 2022
“Net positive” applied to water is complicated and risks entrenching ineffective solutions while still leaving companies exposed to material basin water risks.
With water risks worsening across the globe, a growing number of companies have expressed a desire to assess their water risks and adopt measures to mitigate them. Recently, there has been increasing interest in 'Net Positive Water' - following the widespread adoption of this concept in relation to climate change.
However, 'Net Positive Water' is not as simple - and certainly not as effective - as it sounds. And WWF - a global leader in water stewardship - has now released guidance for companies on the concept.
Key take aways from WWF guidance on 'Net Positive Water'
The concept and framing of “net positive” is appealing through its simplicity in concept and messaging – do more good than bad. “Net positive water” also offers the appeal of a single water metric.
However, water is a highly complex resource and differs from carbon considerably. With carbon, up is bad, down is good, location doesn’t matter and time is a matter of the sooner the better. With water, it often lives in a goldilocks zone where location and timing matters immensely.
Accordingly, application of “net positive” to corporate water stewardship programmes needs to be carefully considered and balanced. Below are a few potential benefits and drawbacks of “net positive” framing with respect to water.
1) “Net positive” applied to water is complicated and risks entrenching ineffective solutions while still leaving companies exposed to material basin water risks.
While the intention of “net positive” water is to communicate simply “more good than bad” and define scope of responsibility, in practice “net positive” water is largely a theoretical approach, typically focused on water balance, that assumes universal uptake in a basin which is highly unlikely. The concept has not been robustly and meaningfully proven effective to date and early evidence suggests it may lead to shorter-term “drop chasing” (i.e., seeking out and maximizing litres of water replenished to lay claims and hit targets) rather than addressing long-term systemic changes needed to achieve meaningful impacts within basins.
2) Replenishment, which is a key dimension of delivering “net positive” for many companies, is not synonymous with collective action, and should not drive nor dictate corporate water strategy. However, it can, if considered carefully, play a useful role for companies as part of a broader water strategy.
It should be remembered that traditional approaches to replenishment were rooted in facilities, not farms (nor other portions of the value chain such as consumer use), and the concept is poorly suited to tackling the key issue: agricultural water use, where water use is nearly 4 times (or more) that of facility use on average. It is also worth noting that current approaches to replenishment are mostly reliant upon projected results and measured through analog means, while future approaches need to shift towards real (or near-real) time digital monitoring of both outcomes and impacts.
3) Commitments, especially to “net positive water” are less important compared to ambitious action that delivers measurable outcomes and basin impacts.
We need to be moving towards shared basin targets, not towards proprietary responsibilities. Solving shared water challenges will mitigate basin risk and deliver on water strategies, while solving proprietary targets will likely not help companies nor freshwater systems.
4) Considering basin allocations remains a key gap for corporate water stewardship and “net positive” continues the trend of not addressing core water governance challenges.
While in theory the concept of “net positive” could be applied at the basin scale, it would require universal uptake, which is not probable. Instead, we need to revisit the issue of basin (re-)allocations, land use practices and water governance if we want to tackle the integrated freshwater, biodiversity and climate crises. Accordingly strategic engagement on water-related collective action and water governance remains a critical next step for corporate water stewards.
Summary of key WWF recommendations
WWF recommends that companies do not use the term “net” or “neutral”, nor linked notions of “offsetting” when it comes to water.
“Net” and “neutral” language inherently creates challenges around alignment of the exchange medium and several challenges relating to what perceived value has been applied to water. In most cases, the use of such language will heighten corporate reputational risk and increase the need for companies to spend time and resources further explaining or defending claims.
WWF recommends that companies provide supplementary detail on measurement processes and scope when alternative terms such as “replenish” and “water positive” are used.
Alternative terms for “net” and “positive” should be treated with caution and if used, employed with clear boundaries (geographic, temporal, clarity on units of measure, etc.). Issues of scope can be challenging with many alternative phrases that link to notions of neutrality (e.g., replenish). Where employed, outcome-level measures should be explored.
WWF recommends that if companies seek to use such terms, they accompany the term with a clear definition of what they mean, and how they will be measuring positive outcomes/impacts for water.
“Water positive” or notions such as “positive water impact” are helpful, but ultimately may be confusing to stakeholders in their interpretation and should be treated with caution.
WWF recommends that companies employ clear output and outcome metrics to describe progress of their water stewardship programs.
The preferred pathway is to have clear, transparent measures and claims that avoid efforts to “balance out” negative impacts. Rather, transparent accounting of inputs and outcomes (both positive and negative) allows users to properly interpret activities, as well as limitations of the measures. Efforts to move towards more regenerative practices (i.e., more good than harm) are encouraged, but the scope of such efforts need not be connected to balancing out negative impacts.
WWF recommends that companies engage in a data-driven process to evaluate their value chain, water risk priorities, to select contextually relevant responses and then establish goals and targets. All of this should be informed by business strategy to maximize traction inside the company.
As advocated in our guide Putting water strategy into context
, targets should be the end point of a water strategy – they should not lead nor dictate the pathway.