Investors Can No Longer Ignore Water Risks

By Monika Freyman 14 July, 2015

Ceres' Freyman shares key findings from their report on the need for & how to integrate water risks for investors

Water – or lack of it – is becoming a bigger financial issue for investors across the world and in many industries
Investors are facing increasing operational & reputational risk; time to mitigate risks is now yet still only at first base
Embedding water analysis in investment decisions can make for more resilient business models & more benefits

An Investor Handbook for Water Risk Integration

Monika Freyman, lead author of Ceres’ report “An Investor Handbook for Water Risk Integration”, on why investors can no longer afford to ignore water risks.
The report uses data from extensive interviews with 35 major global investors with over USD 6 trillion in assets under management.
Freyman shares key findings from the report and on how the status quo of conducting fundamental analysis without consideration of environmental factors will come at an increasing cost to investors and their clients. 


Water – or lack of it – is becoming a bigger financial issue for investors.  The World Economic Forum recently named water availability as the “top global risk.” Often overlooked by investors, and society at large, is that very little of water is readily available for human use and even less is truly renewable. For example in the United States 80-90 percent of available freshwater is groundwater, taking often centuries to replenish, and we are drawing down this account to a zero balance. 1 ,2  Historic droughts in Australia, California, Texas, New Zealand, Taiwan and Brazil  – to name a few –  are also raising investor concerns and risk exposure.
Over half of Brazil’s GDP comes from three states with water reservoirs at less than five percent capacity.  Many large publically listed Brazilian companies across the food and beverage, electricity and mining sectors are increasingly likely facing significant financial impacts.3  The drought in California has impacted many industries and sectors.  One example is that electric utilities have had to spend $1.4 billion more due to low levels of water in hydropower dams.  Taiwan’s drought along with weak water regulations have put into question the ability of the largest semi-conductor chip manufacturers in the world to continue business as usual – with each microchip requiring over a thousand of liters of water for fabrication.4  These chips are critical components in the supply chain of everything from iPhones, laptops to video games and much in between.

“The drought in California has impacted many industries and sectors.
One example is that electric utilities have had to spend $1.4 billion more due to low levels of water in hydropower dams.”

Central Valley California being one of many critical aquifers in decline

Investors’ exposure to risks to grow as society increasingly recognizes their role in the value chain

Investors and companies face reputational and social license to operate and human rights risks by competing for water with communities.  Case in point Newmont mining having to abandon a multi billion dollar mine in Peru and Coca Cola being asked to leave regions of India over ground water abstraction concerns.  Investors also face abrupt and rising water rate hikes.5 For example China is expected to raise water tariffs 30 percent in the next three years. 6

“…most importantly investors must realize that they face these risks in real time – time zero  – now  – they are at their doorstep.”

Not only are investors exposed directly to these risks but also increasingly society will connect the drops (or dots) and recognize companies and investors’ role in the value chain.  For example in Santa Barbara locals are angry at an out of state university endowment for buying water intensive vineyards and water rights while California is facing a historic drought.7 Companies and the pension funds, endowments, foundations as their owners increasingly recognize that they must more proactively deal with water issues and risks (reputational and otherwise).   And most importantly investors must realize that they face these risks in real time – time zero  – now  – they are at their doorstep.

Investors still only on first base for water management despite major risks in portfolios

Through extensive interviews with three-dozen major global investors Ceres found investors need to better manage water issues. Quite simply, there are major water-related risks in their portfolios but too often investors feel they are still on first base in managing these risks.
Three key challenges were highlighted as barriers to more efficient inclusion of water in investment decision-making in the report. These are:

  1. Lack of clear mandates from many asset owners and clients for fund managers to prioritize water risks, with carbon often being  a larger priority due to regulatory and other drivers;
  2. Lack of consistent, comparable data on corporate water performance and contextual water risks; and
  3. Lack of an effective investor water risk analysis framework.

“Many investors found that understanding water risks was a good way to understand the resilience of business models…”

However there are pockets of leadership that highlight that analyzing water issues in investment decision-making can be done and that it can be of great benefit.  Investors actively doing so spoke of benefits through better risk management and returns, along with client relationship building benefits and more productive corporate engagement discussions. Many investors found that understanding water risks was a good way to understand the resilience of business models and corporate practices and a businesses ability to respond to stresses.

Creatively embedding water analysis in investment decision-making & recommendations

Different Approaches in Applying Water & ESG Analysis to Buy & Sell Decisions
Investors were creatively embedding water analysis in a variety of ways.  Leading and innovative practices include applying a shadow price – or higher value of water – in financial modeling and scenario analysis, of companies in high-risk water regions.   Another approach is to map sectors and regions of high water risk exposure and compare this to sector and company response rates in managing these water risks.  Some investors were conducting portfolio water footprint analysis and comparing their water risk exposure to their benchmarks.  Embedding water risk analysis expectations in RFPs, investment beliefs, guideline documents or proxy policies is also becoming more common and sends signals to data and research providers and beyond that this information is important.8

There is no one-size fits all approach to ESG and water integration but below are 10 recommendations (click on image to enlarge) Ceres identified as the most critical for asset owners and managers to advance water risk integration in the near- and long-term. They can be selectively or collectively considered.  For more on these see the full report.

Key Recommendations for Asset Owners & Managers

 

“The status quo of conducting fundamental analysis without consideration of these types of environmental factors will come at an increasing cost to investors and their clients.”

As we become used to the term megadrought – decades long droughts – and face a world of ever more strained water resources, investors will have to put more of their own research resources toward mitigating exposure to these risks. They simply will have to.
The status quo of conducting fundamental analysis without consideration of these types of environmental factors will come at an increasing cost to investors and their clients.


1 http://www.waterencyclopedia.com/Ge-Hy/Groundwater.html#ixzz3VuCXmjcl
2 http://www.eenews.net/stories/1060008113
3 Brazilian study of market cap impacts be sector.
4 http://taiwaninfo.nat.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=56006&CtNode=103&htx_TRCategory=&mp=4
5 UN, “The Human Right to Water and Sanitation,” Resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly, 28 July 2010, http://www.un.org/es/comun/docs/?symbol=A/RES/64/292&lang=E
6 Brian Spegel and William Kazer, “To Conserve Water, China Raises Prices for Top Users,” Wall Street Journal, 8 Jan. 2014. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303870704579297410328066466
7 http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/51442
8 See example of 30 mangers that have water in proxy guidelines, reference NBIM’s water guideline document etc.

Further Reading

  • China’s New Era of ESG – China’s economy is slowing with challenges arising from ESG factors. MSCI’s Chew & Wang on pollution fines, anti-corruption crackdowns & more from their report. Investors need to be prepared
  • 2014 State of Environment Report Review -China’s overall environmental quality in 2014 was “average”, but with polluters tampering with monitoring, can we even believe this data? We take a closer look at the mixed news
  • China Water Investments: 3 Thoughts – Investing in the water sector looks attractive with the Chinese government & consumers wanting water tariff hikes. Will water supply or wastewater treatment be the larger market? Debra Tan shares some on-ground views distilled from recent conversations
  • 2014 Investments in Chinese Waters – With the government encouraging public & private sector water spend, check out investments in 2014 from agriculture, wastewater, water infrastructure, drinking water to Israeli cleantech
  • Conflicting Reporting Hinders Water Risk Strategies – World Resource Institute’s Tien Shiao & Paul Reig discuss how inconsistent definitions of water stress & scarcity, and risk mean that not only do companies end up with inadequate mitigation strategies, but investors too are unable to form comparable benchmarks
  • Investors Value Fuller Disclosure – PwC partner, Gayle Donohue argues that existing corporate reporting with undue focus on financial aspects of the business model is outdated, and outlines research which shows fuller disclosure of ESG information could translate into more BUY recommendations
  • Water Stewardship: Actions Must Match Risk – Despite acknowledgement of water risks, 58% of companies in CDP’s 2014 Global Water report do not have a public commitment to water. We expand on actions needed in China & globally to match the risk

Monika Freyman
Author: Monika Freyman
Monika is a senior manager in Ceres' water program, where she researches and conducts corporate and investor engagement on the risks and opportunities related to growing water scarcity and water quality issues.Prior to Ceres Monika worked as a research consultant for the Initiative for Responsible Investment at Harvard, exploring the roots of the concept of sustainability to inform the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB) in their efforts to evolve corporate reporting standards and investor integration of environmental and social factors. As a Chartered Financial Analyst and former emerging market analyst, with a Masters in Freshwater Ecology, Monika is particularly interested in driving greater integration of water risks and opportunities into the portfolio management process.
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