A Wave of Change: Companies’ role in building a water-secure world

By Laureen Missaire 26 May, 2021

Despite the pandemic, disclosing companies are up 20%. CDP's Missaire shares the latest trends from their 2020 global water report

The current drought in Taiwan is proof that water availability presents financial risks for businesses; ~3,000 companies disclosed to CDP in 2020, just over 1,000 with Asian HQs
Financial impact of reported risks up to US$301bn; while mitigating risks costs only US$55bn; turning the corner on water use disclosure but badly behind on water quality
Water related opportunities up to $711bn; companies are transforming to capture these - e.g. a Nissan facility can operate independently of external water sources for up to 130 days

When it comes to water security, businesses cannot afford to wait. The current drought in Taiwan is proof that water availability presents financial risks for businesses operations and across supply chains. CDP’s 2020 Global Water Report shows the cost of inaction on water risks is up to five times the cost of action, and that there are huge business opportunities to be seized in the transformation to a water secure world.

2,934 co’s responded of which 1,018 have HQ in Asia

CDP’s water security program, initiated in 2010, aims to achieve a water-secure world by focusing investors, companies, and cities on measuring, understanding, and reducing their environmental impact.

In 2020, 5,537 high impact companies (both in terms of water consumption and pollution potential) were asked to provide data about their efforts to manage and govern freshwater resources through CDP. In total 2,934 companies responded, from which 1,018 are headquartered in Asia.

CDP’s latest Global Water Report – “A Wave of Change – The role of companies in building a water-secure world” – presents the analysis of these 2,934 responding companies of which 931 are of the world’s largest publicly listed companies.

The findings of the report show that in 2020 – despite the pandemic – there was a 20% increase in companies disclosing through CDP’s water security questionnaire compared to 2019. The uptick in responses has been particularly strong in the materials, retail, and transportation sectors.​ This increase in disclosure is testament to the fact that companies are recognizing what is at stake with rapidly depleting water resources and realizing the importance of transparency in turning this crisis around.

The cost of action is less than the cost of inaction

Analysis of companies providing information about water risks in 2020 indicates that the potential financial impact of water risks is over five times higher than the cost of addressing them.

Financial impact of reported risks up to US$301bn; while mitigating risks costs only US$55bn

The total financial impact of reported risks is up to US$301 billion; while mitigating those risks costs only US$55 billion. As well as making sense from an environmental perspective, it is financially wise to act on those risks; mitigating them makes business sense.

The report investigates financial data on water risks at a company, regional, river basin and sector levels and the finding above remains true: the potential financial impact of water risks outweighs the cost of addressing them. There are exceptions for the power generation and infrastructure sectors where large energy companies are reporting global investments to diversify and decarbonise their energy portfolios. These costs reflect the response to a broader set of risks, beyond water risks in specific locations.

Focusing on Asia, our global analysis suggests that 6 out of the 10 riskiest river basins [river basins where most risks have been reported by companies in 2020] are in Asia: the Chao Phraya in Thailand, the Ganges-Brahmaputra system draining the Himalayas, the Indus in Pakistan, the Yangtze in China and the Tone and Yodo in Japan.

6/10 riskiest river basins are in Asia

(click on images to enlarge)

The potential financial impact of risk in Asia is valued at US$132.1 billion, with the cost of response estimated at just US$5.06 billion – again, this highlights a clear business case for action.

Is corporate action to date enough?

Our data indicates that corporates are investing in mitigation measures – particularly increasing capital expenditure (US$19.7 billion), improving pollution abatement measures (US$13.2 billion) and increasing or reviewing infrastructure investments (US$11.6 billion). But are these investments sufficient to reduce water risks and improve water security for businesses and wider society?

“…turned a corner on water use, with 64% of consistently reporting companies…”

but a long way to go on water quality disclosure, only 4.4% setting targets

CDP’s analysis suggests that we have reason to be optimistic. We have turned a corner on water use, with 64% of consistently reporting companies [analysis from a cohort reporting consistently between 2015 and 2020] now reducing or maintaining their withdrawals from water sources. However, disclosures on water quality indicate that we have a long way to go before the elimination of corporate water pollution becomes mainstreamed. Just 4.4% of companies are setting and reporting progress against pollution reduction targets.

What is being invested in is also important. Companies that invest in approaches that address fundamental issues – like improving supplier performance and designing out pollution from products – will ultimately make leaps rather than small steps towards reducing water risks.​ Decisively, the report highlights that companies should prioritize investments that bring long-term and fundamental progress on water security.

From transparency to transformation

The report paints a vision for a water secure world where citizens, industry and nature all have the water they need for a thriving economy. The private sector is vital to achieving this vision and to get there, companies need to go beyond business as usual, rethink their strategies and transform their business models. Action must go beyond just mitigating water risks. The report also highlights that doing things differently can bring significant financial rewards as the total value of water related opportunities reported through CDP was up to $711 billion.

Water related opportunities up to $711bn

The report presents several business “stories of transformation”. One is Nissan Motor Co., Ltd, a Japanese multinational automobile manufacturer who has been disclosing to CDP since 2016 and achieved an A for water security in 2020. To increase resilience to extreme weather events, Nissan is aiming to reduce water withdrawals for manufacturing by 21% globally. They are doing so by harvesting rainwater and recycling much of their wastewater. This approach is already enabling its Indian facility to be independent of external water sources for up to 130 days.

Nissan’s Indian facility can operate independently of external water sources for up to 130 days

Now, what are the enablers of such transformations that other companies can employ? Throughout our analysis, it is clear that companies demonstrating transformative action have certain things in common. They all have water issues integrated into their long-term business objectives, strategy, and financial planning; they also have C-suite incentives tied to water use reduction, pollution reduction or engaged with their supply chains. In addition, they all use climate-related scenario analysis to inform their strategy.

In conclusion, companies that transform their business and work to protect water resources have the potential to achieve both short and long-term cost savings, generate revenues and contribute to a resilient future for all. Delivering an inclusive, sustainable, and responsible economy is one of the defining challenges of the 21st century and the corporate water leadership showcased in our report, if adopted at scale, will position us well to meet it.

To find out more about how companies are acting on water security, re-thinking their strategies and transforming their business models, look at CDP’s full report.

Further Reading

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Laureen Missaire
Author: Laureen Missaire
Laureen is responsible for providing insights to drive progress on businesses’ action towards water security. She is working with key stakeholders to deliver significant changes in the corporate management of water. Prior to this, she worked in CDP Supply Chain team on supporting disclosure and produced analytics products for members. Laureen holds an MSc in Sustainability Science and Policy from Maastricht University (Netherlands) and focused on business transformation for sustainability.
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