Philanthropy: Catalysing Water for All

By Lisa Genasci 13 May, 2014

Lisa Genasci on how catalytic philanthropy in China can play a pivotal role in ensuring water for all in Asia, Lisa Genasci on how catalytic philanthropy in China can play a pivotal role in ensuring water for all in Asia, Lisa Genasci on how catalytic philanthropy in China can play a pivotal role in ensuring water for all in Asia

China’s environmental challenges are our own; philanthropy has a vital role to play in stimulating change
Despite impending climate disaster, only 7% of grants in US are for the environment; much more than Asia
Philanthropists should take more risk by supporting research, public education, pilot projects & advocacy

Here are two things we might not understand yet but we will shortly: China’s environmental challenges are our own and philanthropy has a vital role to play in stimulating change.

“China’s environmental challenges are our own and philanthropy has a vital role to play in stimulating change”

Let’s look at the “why we should care” first. And this, of course, inherently leads into the second.

With growth averaging 10 percent annually over the past decades, our northern neighbor has become manufacturer to the world’s goods and a significant producer of food, all while pulling an estimated 300 million people out of rural poverty and into cities, helping to set the stage for future consumer demand.

This has mortgaged China’s natural resources. Just to contextualize: with 20 percent of the world’s population, China has 7 percent of the world’s freshwater reserves and already there are insufficient water reserves to meet demand.

Yet, excessive air and water emissions from industry and power production mean that 70 percent of ground water in the north china plain, where most of China’s food is grown, is severely polluted, as are lakes, reservoirs and rivers throughout the country.

“No other country globally carries so much future climate weight internationally. Except perhaps India.”

So what does the future look like in China? Over the next 15 years, expectations are that GDP will double, an additional 200-300 million people will be pulled into cities, needing 400 percent more energy and 200 million more cars.

No other country globally carries so much future climate weight internationally – except perhaps India. Anticipating significant shortfalls in everything from water to coal, China is scrambling worldwide to secure access to resources.

China Water Philanthropy Forum Agenda (660 pixels)

Recently, the ADM Capital Foundation and China Water Risk held a China Water Philanthropy forum sponsored by Coutts & Co. Ltd to educate an interested audience in the issues relative to water in China and the role of philanthropy in helping to spur better water management.

Speaking about China Water 101 and the water-energy nexus was CWR’s Debra Tan. Li Jin Zhang from World Resources Institute spoke about water assessment tools and Beibei Gu of the Institute of Public & Private Affairs spoke about water and supply chains.

Photographer Lu Guang presented an incredibly powerful series of photos of China’s rivers taken since 2006 showing their dramatic deterioration and the public health consequences (see CWR’s interview with him here).

“.. there is important work proceeding in China to try to mitigate excessive water pollution and consumption”

Key takeaways following a good panel discussion moderated by Swire’s Phillippe Lacamp, was that there is important work proceeding in China to try to mitigate excessive water pollution and consumption and that philanthropy can help instigate real change. See below in “Further Reading”.

Itself recognizing an impending public health catastrophe and the social instability that could ensue, China’s 12th 5-year plan called for balanced growth and improved water management. This was backed by plans to stimulate a US$734 billion environmental protection and energy savings industry equivalent to 6-7 percent of GDP by 2015.

More recently, acknowledging the excess resource consumption by industry and the toll on water, air and soil as well as public health, China’s Premier Li Keqiang declared “war on pollution”. The priority, he said, was to protect water sources and soil from industrial and agricultural pollution.

These are challenges not just for China but challenges of global concern, funneling into issues as diverse as climate change, food and global water security among others.

Indeed, earlier this month, a report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put all the pieces together, warning that nobody on the planet would be untouched.

In its most urgent plea so far, the IPCC report said climate change, which was already having real impact, killing marine life, causing heat waves, storm surges, flooding and other climate disasters, posed a threat to global food stocks and ultimately human security.

We must all play a role in ameliorating what the IPCC describes as impending climate disaster

Yet environmental funding is still only ~7% of foundation grant-making in the US

As philanthropists we are simply not doing enough

Thus, We must all play a role in ameliorating what the IPCC describes as impending climate disaster. Philanthropy, done right, should play a central one, seeding innovation and action.

Yet environmental funding is still only around 7 percent of foundation grantmaking in the United States and much lower anywhere else.  Most philanthropic initiatives involving water that immediately spring to mind are often worthy but woefully insufficient given the enormity of the challenge, involving digging wells or providing communities with clean water – largely in Africa.

As philanthropists we are simply not doing enough.

Obviously, philanthropy alone can’t solve Asia’s water challenges. The problem is too big and our resources too limited.

But philanthropy can play a catalytic role.

We have the ability as philanthropists to experiment – to try things that the public and private sectors simply can’t or won’t.

Philanthropy can play a catalytic role

We can take risks that are politically unacceptable to government and economically unacceptable to business

We can support research, public education, pilot projects, and advocacy

We can take risks that are politically unacceptable to government and economically unacceptable to business.  We can support research, public education, pilot projects, and advocacy.

There are many good organizations leading toward real solutions such as those mentioned above and featured in the China Water Philanthropy Session.

So we all need to ask ourselves, what can be my role in change for the better?

Some last thoughts to consider: China and, of course, India are the most water stressed countries globally. We should not take our water resource for granted in Asia, while in Europe and the United States, with some notable exceptions (California, Arizona, for example) water resource is not immediately threatened.

Water in China used to be associated with the word crisis, but now we would like to think that it is clearly linked instead with the word risk – business, human and ecological.  Indeed, risk was loud and clear in the IPCC report.

Characterized in these terms, the need for action seems clearer.

We need new solutions to be able to solve Asia’s immense water challenges.

This is Asia’s problem and we should take the lead – no one else will.

While philanthropy can’t solve all our problems, it can play a critical and leadership role in seeding innovation, building knowledge and supporting action.


Further Reading

  • Business & Society: Building Trust – Given pressing societal issues, companies are now expected to lead the change across their business value chain. Edelman’s Ashley Hegland on why businesses need to reprioritize value to include such societal benefits to build & maintain trust or face reputational brand damage
  • Corporate Conscience: Beyond Charity – Why are so few companies effectively mitigating water risk? Is it time for the conscientious corporate to transition water from purely charity and compliance to a core business activity?
  • Swire Pacific: Taking Sustainability Mainstream – Philippe Lacamp, Swire’s Head of Sustainability tells us why they have integrated sustainability reporting into their 2011 Annual Report
  • Moving Beyond GDP: Natural Capital – Lisa Genasci talks about Natural Capital, as leaders start to value resources to protect core business interest as costs could reach US$28trillion by 2050
  • Crying Lands: China’s Polluted Waterscape – Award-winning photographer Lu Guang shares his journey in documenting sensitive social, health & environmental issues in China. See the tangible linkages through his heart-rending and insightful photographs

Some NGO Action

  • China’s Water Watchdogs – China’s new breed of water watchdogs are emerging, with rising concerns over pollution. Pacific Environment’s china Program Director, Kristen McDonald tells us why we should take notice of their action
  • Water Grab: Shenhua Responds – Shenhua’s reponse to water grab allegations is a good start but Greenpeace’s Quek say questions still remain. Can the environment support a large scale push into the coal-to-chemicals sector?
  • Fashion Update: Brand Winners & Sinners – With the new Phase III Textiles Investigative Report released by 7 China NGOs through IPE, we look at who has managed to stay on top since the first report published in April 2012
  • Apple: A New Chapter – Apple finally investigates its supply chain over complaints of pollution violations. MaJun shares with us his views on this epic 18 month battle
  • Gansu Bathhouse Blues – Josephine Price of Village People Project tells us how the mispricing of water affects rural bathhouses and causes wastage and misery side-by-side

Lisa Genasci
Author: Lisa Genasci
Lisa Genasci is the CEO and founder of ADM Capital Foundation (ADMCF) which provides support to some of Asia’s most marginalized children and works to combat intransigent environmental challenges facing the region.  Before working in the non-profit sector, Lisa worked for ten years with the Associated Press, three as a correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro, three on the foreign desk and four as a financial reporter in New York. She created and for three years authored a column on women and workplace issues, ‘On the Job,’ which was widely distributed in U.S. and foreign publications. In Hong Kong she wrote business stories for CNN and worked as a freelance features reporter for local publications. She currently writes a blog on Asian philanthropy and on some of the region’s most significant environmental and poverty challenges.
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