Water is the earth’s most precious resource. Though we live on a ‘blue planet’, less than one per cent of water is actually accessible as freshwater. Water is essential to human survival, to the natural environment, to the agriculture industry, for businesses, and increasingly for energy use. The future of this resource matters to every living thing on Earth and water scarcity is becoming an increasingly globalised issue.
Too often, the private sector has dominated the water usage scene, with the principle of sustainable use of the resource frequently taking a back seat to profit. However, environmentalists have devised a new strategy to encourage multiple actors (mainly the government, the private sector and consumers) to come together and act in the best long-term interests for all parties involved. Instead of appealing to the intrinsic value of water as a resource for the ecosystem, water stewardship programs are based on a very simple concept: water is the stuff of life for everyone, and that includes businesses. By improperly managing water systems, companies risk their ability to make their products on a long-term scale. Water scarcity means a curb in production and profit, which is something no company wants. Goldman Sachs listed water scarcity as one of the top five risks to businesses in 2008, and the issue has consistently remained at the top of global agendas.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has been active in the water stewardship programs. The organisation has partnered with several huge businesses, including H&M, SABMiller, Marks and Spencer and the Coca-Cola Company to make the biggest possible impact on the future of water sustainability. The Coca-Cola Company has had a controversial past with responsible use of water, coming under fire along with the industry giant Nestle for a series of water privatisation acts in the developing world a few years ago. However, in their collaboration with the WWF, they have shown themselves to value a type of commitment to ethical water use, which in turn boosts their reputation as a sustainable company.
The World Wide Fund for Nature’s partnership with the Coca-Cola Company
It takes an average of a gallon of water to make a 2-litre bottle of the soda. When you include the water used to grow the ingredients like sugar cane, this can go up to almost 132 gallons of water per 2-liter bottle.  If Coca-Cola wants to continue making a profit off of this drink, they need to ensure that those 132 gallons per bottle are coming from a source that can give them a steady and reliable supply. By encouraging responsible use of the precious resource, water stewardship programs aim to mitigate risks to the environment and to businesses, which in turn limits long-term risks to the most number of stakeholders in the company. The water stewardship program with Coca-Cola Company has been highly successful in creating partnerships with local governments for the sustainable management of watersheds.
The Coca-Cola Company is seeking ‘water neutrality’ by 2020, meaning that the company will seek to reduce their water usage, recycle used water through water treatment plants and replenish healthy water sheds by implementing local projects such as reforestation and agricultural water use efficiency programs. Though many activists claim that this is ‘greenwash’ and that a company employing as much water use as the Coca-Cola Company couldn’t possibly achieve water neutrality, it is a step in the right direction for one of the biggest beverage companies in the world.
Branching public and private interests
Water stewardship has been an international initiative. The CEO Water Mandate, launched by the UN Secretary General in July 2007, is a public-private initiative to assist companies in water sustainability practices. The mandate has been taken up by regional actors who stakeholders that choose to use water in a sustainable way. For example, the European Water Stewardship Program involves three different levels of award for water sustainability (bronze, silver and gold), and companies who are awarded with these certifications may use it to appeal to stakeholders and consumers. With the rise of ‘green consumerism’, where ethical business practices are used as a selling point, this may help to enhance their businesses and bring in new customers.
When dealing with governmental actors, activists for water conservation may appeal to the largest industries in the country. Kenya’s booming global flower market makes up a large part of the country’s foreign exchange, and therefore the government has a vested interest in maintaining a clean and sustainable water source in order to allow the flower industry to remain the country’s most lucrative business. Particularly in developing countries, appealing to the financial long-term benefits of conservation can be a more successful strategy for resource conservation than relying on countries valuing the intrinsic value of the ecosystem.
Water management awareness
The stewardship programs are often coupled with comprehensive corporate education plans on the true value of water in the framework of continuing business interests. These often include information on how to control internal action within corporations to prioritise use and goals to increase efficiency of management. Water stewardship involves an exchange of information on what are the most sustainable business practices for different industries, for example, agricultural industries emerging in developing markets to encourage social and economic development.
Additionally, a large part of what water stewardship is about is simply arming consumers, companies and governments with the right questions about future water risks. More and more, shareholders are demanding sustainable water plans in exchange for their continued financial support. In the end, it all comes down to making responsible investments – companies that understand that their wealth is inherently tied up in the proper management of this precious resource will of course do better in their long-term profits than companies that ignore the demand for action.
Water stewardship: a ‘win-win’ solution
Water risks therefore need to be tackled by all impacted actors at a local and national level in a collaborative approach that seeks to bridge traditionally opposing forces. In the end, though the method may be new, all actors are achieving what they want: environmentalists get the sustainable management of a precious resource, governments get the engagement of corporations to responsibly manage national water sheds, consumers get to support ethical businesses and corporations get the security of their continued use of the resource. Collective action involves traditionally opposing forces working together – instead of attempting to change the age-old interests of business versus conservation instincts, water stewardship is a unique way of looking at the issues that affect our society and synthesising those interests to maximise positive outcomes.
 Evans-Pritchard, Ambrose “Water crisis to be biggest world risk” The Telegraph, 05 June 2008, available online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/utilities/2791116/Water-crisis-to-be-biggest-world-risk.html
 Alter, Alexanda “Yet Another Footprint to Worry About: Water” , 17 February 2008, available online: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB123483638138996305