Asia Water Week: 5 Takeaways

By Tien Shiao 9 April, 2013

World Resources Institute's Tien Shiao runs us through their 5 major takeaways from the Asian Water Week

Private sector and industries have to act together to managing risk; cannot just be a 'clean fish in a dirty pond'
Availability of water risk mapping tools should see trends for stewardship in Asia improve
Governments need to link water to economic impact to speak the same language as businesses

Already facing lower per capita freshwater availability than any other continent1, and with a population expected to grow by over a billion by 20502, water is a top priority in Asia. Experts from NGOs, academic research institutions, the private sector and beyond gathered in Manila for Asian Water Week, a conference convened by the Asian Development Bank between March 13 and 15. The theme for this year’s event was “Securing Water for All”. Here are the top five take-aways from Asian Water Week.

1. The private sector has a stake in a water secure Asia

During Asia Water Week’s opening remarks, H&M’s Global Sustainability manager, Fredrik Rosenholm, explained the company’s experience with water risks. One example was in Dhakah, Bangladesh, where groundwater resources were sinking rapidly but were still unregulated, leaving the company’s long-term access to water questionable. In India, the entire fabric dyeing industry faced near collapse due to lawsuits regarding polluted drinking water. The company installed zero-discharge plants, leading to price increases. The private sector is motivated to help create a water secure Asia in order to reduce water risk impacts to their business, but also to stay ahead of their competition, government regulations, and Improve their standing in the community.

2. Businesses want to be a part the water management solution

“We know it’s not enough to be a clean fish in a dirty pond”

Frederick Rosenholm H&M

Companies are engaging on water risk through their own operations, supply chains, and other business peers, but finding it more challenging to engage with communities and policy-makers in the watershed and beyond. Those steps take much longer, and take companies outside of their comfort zone of direct control. However, companies know that watershed efforts are essential for managing risk. “We know it’s not enough to be a clean fish in a dirty pond”, in the words of Fredrick Rosenholm from H&M.

So what can businesses offer? Large companies can be influential in driving more sustainable water practices. They can be a sounding board when stakeholders in the watershed decide on good water management practices and solutions. They have connections to local business and suppliers, and have the ability to influence their value chain, leading to impact that stretches beyond their direct operations. Also, many companies have adopted triple bottom line principles, and are committed to sustainably managing their own impact on local water resources.

In addition to their experience, influence, and commitment, businesses have many other ways to engage on water issues. They can provide financial assistance and analysis, collect and share data, conduct outreach to communities, engage consumers, innovate new policy approaches, and adjust their procurement policies, to name a few. The Alliance for Water Stewardship, released  beta version guidelines this month on how companies can take meaningful steps to contribute to sustainable water balance, sustainable water quality, and healthy watersheds. They also showed the audience how water risk maps can be used for water stewardship by identifying major water users in the watershed, to identify partnerships between governments and industries to reduce water risk in the watershed.

3. Governments need to stress the economic impacts of water scarcity

“water supply is destabilizing the global environment, and will only get worse”

Mohamed Ait Kadi, Global Water Partnership

During Asia Water Week’s keynote, Mohamed Ait Kadi of the Global Water Partnership Technical Committee said, “water supply is destabilizing the global environment, and will only get worse.” Along the same lines, Keizrul bin Abdullah, Chair, Network of Asian River Basin Organization, noted that people started paying attention to climate change only when the third IPCC scenario report came out showing the economic impacts of climate change. “Only when water issues are linked to the greater economy and impact to people does it garner attention.” In that sense, government and business interests are aligned. However, as Anders Berntell, Executive Director of Water Resources Group put it, “when water is everyone’s business, it becomes no one’s business.” No matter what, government has the responsibility of properly allocating water resources and developing proper economic instruments for water resources management.

4. Trends in water risk and water stewardship in Asia

water is increasingly recognized as a key business risk. Quantifying water risk is becoming a key component for investors… Companies need to deal with issues as an industry as a whole”

Phillip Erqulaga, ADB Director General Private Sector Operations

Improved disclosure of water risk and engagement outside of the company’s fence line are becoming increasingly important. The public availability of water risk mapping tools employing sophisticated hydrological modeling is improving. WRI’s Aqueduct water risk mapping tool was accessed by more than 34,000 unique users since its launch at the end of January 2013. With financial institutions asking companies more questions, and consumers and media paying closer attention, there is greater appetite for companies to disclose their information to external stakeholders to work outside of their fence line.

Indeed, Phillip Erqulaga, ADB Director General Private Sector Operations, noted “water is increasingly recognized as a key business risk. Quantifying water risk is becoming a key component for investors.” Juan Dominguez, Director, Coca-Cola-FEMSA, said, “companies can use freely available tools and don’t need to re-invent the wheel. Companies need to deal with issues as an industry as a whole”. Although corporate water stewardship is in its early stage, comments from participants in Asia Water Week suggest that collaboration across sectors (for example, between governments and the private sector) may be speedier and more effective than interactions between government bodies.

5. Are we speaking the same language?

During Asia Water Week, the terms “water risk” and “water stewardship” were used primarily by the private sector, and “water security” and “water for all” primarily used by governments. In corporate water risk literature, “water risk “ is  defined as water challenges that affect a company’s access to water and therefore direct operations, supply chains and logistics.3 In the current popular nomenclature, the response to water risk is “water stewardship” where companies improve efficiency but also facilitate sustainable management of freshwater resources in the watershed through collaboration with other stakeholders in the watershed.4 This ensures protection of water supply and quality for all users, at the same time ensuring longer-term business sustainability. Thus, both the public and private sectors are speaking the same language, and more important, share the same interests – they just may not  realise it.

Water security implies sustainable use and protection of water systems and safe guarding access to water for humans and environment.5 Perhaps, if businesses and governments talked each other’s language, we could bring more people to the table. And if we can do that, and mobilise the political will, we can find solutions to Asia’s water issues.

5 Water Security: What does it mean, what may it imply? Discussion paper by UNESCO-IHE
Tien Shiao
Author: Tien Shiao
Tien Shiao joined the Pacific Institute in 2016. She is a Senior Research Associate for the Corporate Sustainability team and has ten years of experience in corporate sustainability, stakeholder engagement, and water risk and stewardship. Tien’s work focuses on innovative solutions for corporate water challenges, encompassing corporate disclosure frameworks and impact metrics. Tien received a B.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor and a Master’s degree in Environmental Management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She is fluent in English and Mandarin.
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