Developing A Global Water Stewardship System

By Ma Xi, Zhenzhen Xu, Michael Spencer 4 February, 2016

AWS' Xu, Xi & Spencer introduce the 1st global water stewardship standard & lessons from Ecolab's China pilot

AWS with 30 orgs developed internal self-assessment tool
Tool can also be used to engage stakeholders re catchment sustainability; 3rd party verification is an option
Results from Ecolab's China pilot used to finalise tool & use in chemical sector; scaling-up challenges remain

Water is a vital resource for nature and people.  It is a shared and public resource, WE – all water users – are accountable for its sustainable management.  Increasingly, people around the world are aware of risks that water scarcity, pollution and poor water governance have on our economy, our society and the ecosystems on which we depend.  Despite increasing efforts to enhance policy, planning and investment in water infrastructure and efficiency projects, we are still far from successful in addressing water-related challenges.

This is the first international water stewardship standard

Launched in 2009 and now embraced by 30 leading organizations, the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) is dedicated to developing a global system that addresses the world’s water challenges by recognizing leaders in good water stewardship.
AWS Standard System Diagram
The system rewards individual water users who improve the way they use water and reduce the catchment impacts of their water use thereby contributing to more sustainable management of shared freshwater resources.
After four-years of development through a global multi-stakeholder process, the first International Water Stewardship Standard (the AWS Standard) was released in April, 2014.  The AWS Standard sets out a process for major water using sites to follow in order to contribute to achieving the four outcomes mentioned in the chart right and be recognised for their water management leadership.

The AWS International Water Stewardship Standard

We defines water stewardship as: “The use of water that is socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial, achieved through a stakeholder-inclusive process that involves site and catchment-based actions.”

AWS Standard can be implemented by any water-using site in any sector (private or public). Through site-level and collective actions at catchment level. Following a PLAN-DO-CHECK-ACT (PDCA) cycle, the standard is organized around six steps provides water stewards with a continual improvement framework. Each step contains a set of core and advanced criteria, and corresponding indicators, which describes the operational conditions that need to be met and means to measure the achievement of outcomes.

  • Step 1: COMMIT – Commit to being a responsible water steward
  • Step 2: GATHER & UNDERSTAND – Gather data to understand shared water challenges and water related risks, impacts and opportunities
  • Step 3: PLAN – Develop a water stewardship plan
  • Step 4: IMPLEMENT – Implement the site’s stewardship plan and improve impacts
  • Step 5: EVALUATE – Evaluate the site’s performance
  • Step 6: COMMUNICATE & DISCLOSE – Communicate about water stewardship and disclose the site’s stewardship efforts

The Standard follows a Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle
It can be used as an internal self-assessment tool or to engage stakeholders in catchment sustainability


AWS Standard can be used as an internal self-assessment tool, as a means of seeking market recognition for good water stewardship performance, or as a means to engage stakeholders in catchment sustainability.  Any intended practitioners, large or small, can find their way to get involved and start their journey of water stewardship (as shown in the figure below).  The system allows claims of conformity through 3rd party verification as well as self-assessment.

AWS Services ChartHere we present Ecolab’s case study to illustrate how AWS standard is used in practice and why water stewardship is good for business and the environment.

From Water Risk Management to Business Value Creation – Ecolab’s Water Stewardship Journey

Ecolab’s Taicang plant, commissioned in 2012, is located in the Taihu Lake Basin which is in the core of Yantze River Delta economic development area. Taihu Lake Basin suffers from various water problems including flooding, saltwater intrusion, droughts and significant pollution and water quality issues.
The Chinese government has also taken steps to address these concerns and placed stringent requirements on new industrial facilities in the watershed, including a zero-discharge mandate.  The plant faced tremendous water challenges from day one of its plant design.

In 2015 Ecolab added 15 new projects to its annually updated water stewardship plan

Partnering with World Wildlife Fund (WWF, founding member of AWS), Ecolab undertook a field test of the AWS Standard (beta version) at its Taicang manufacturing plant from year 2013. The figure below illustrates the initial AWS journey. With the system in place, water stewardship has now become a long-term strategy that is integrated in plant management. In 2015, Ecolab added 15 new projects to its annually updated water stewardship plan.
From 2013 to 2015, Ecolab has achieved a range of outcomes through its water stewardship effort:

  • Improved water efficiency, reduced wastewater and reduced costs
  • Supplementary of ISO14000 system, and improvement of water and environmental protection standards
  • Improved relationship with civil society groups and government officials
  • Raised awareness among staff, suppliers and neighboring plants on the importance of water stewardship
  • Better understanding of the site’s indirect water use and associated risks

Ecolab Water Stewardship Plan
Besides private benefit to the company, the project also contributed to improving overall water management in the catchment, increase awareness of shared water challenges among major water users in the catchment, and facilitated dialogue between business, government, NGOs and community.

Project obstacles included: lack of publicly available water related info and lack of communication channels

In September 2015, Ecolab’s Taicang plant became the first facility in the world to be AWS certified. The experience of Ecolab contributed to the finalization of the first AWS standards, and global knowledge on practical implication of the Standard in chemical sector.
The project also highlighted some major obstacles for implementing water stewardship, such as lack of publicly available water related information for the catchment, lack of communication channels and platform for major water users and various stakeholder groups, and the need for leadership at catchment level to drive collective actions. This learning will contribute to the continuous improvement of the AWS water stewardship system.

Future outlook: scaling up and growing local capacity

In order to enhance capacity at local level to develop and scale-up water stewardship in major river basins in China, AWS, China National Institute for Standardization (CNIS), Ecolab and WWF China is planning to develop a Water Stewardship China Network (WSCN) and calling for more partners to join.  WSCN’s initial mission will be to:

  • Create a collaborative way for businesses, government and communities to define and deliver great stewardship outcomes;
  • Ensure that good water stewardship outcomes are recognized locally and internationally; and
  • Ensure Chinese knowledge and experience is embedded in the AWS international standard and created to support its local delivery.

Ecolab and WWF China is planning to develop a Water Stewardship China Network

In China, we are currently initiating water stewardship pilot projects with NGO partners, domestic manufacturers and global brands in various sectors including agriculture, food & beverage, textile printing & dyeing, micro-electronics, natural education and water utility sectors.
We invite interested parties from private, public sectors as well as civil society to join us in the effort to protect our precious water resources.

Further Reading

  • China Water Risk’s 5 Trends for 2016 – Prioritizing environment alongside employment signals a reshuffle. To show it’s serious, China will “kill a chicken to warn the monkey”. The Year of the Monkey brings with it wild swings, so check out our top 5 trends in water for 2016 for it is better to be in a position to disrupt than be disrupted
  • Be Green and Prosper – With increased fines, penalties and jail sentences, China Water Risk’s McGregor & Liu expand on China’s push towards ‘all things green’. Also hear from top business leaders in China on why it pays to be green to prosperCWR 5 trends
  • Comparing Chinese Hydropower Overseas – Who’s better at building dams overseas? Datang, Huaneng, Three Gorges or Huadian? International Rivers’ Jenson-Cormier shares their benchmarking study on seven Chinese hydropower co’s

Business & Water

  • Incorporating Environment Into Business – Companies are incorporating environmental performance into business, so suppliers need to follow suit or risk losing customers. The Business Environmental Performance Initiative (BEPI) can help both parties as BEPI’s Micilotta explains
  • China Water-nomics – Will China’s economic development be hampered by limited water resources?  The very existence of the Three Red Lines signals that China can’t keep developing the way it has. Read on for why GDP will be capped at 5.7% given China’s water-nomics
  • Brand Rankings Through A Chinese Lens – See how global and local brands rank across 8 sectors in terms of their supply chain’s environmental impact in this review of the new Corporate Information Transparency Index (CITI) report by IPE & NRDC
  • Corporate Water Reporting in China – CDP’s report shows potentially inadequate water risk assessment by Chinese companies & those with HQ’s in China. CDP’s Gillespy on their latest report and why it’s time to report on water risks
Ma Xi
Author: Ma Xi
Ma Xi works for Ecolab Greater China as a director of Marketing. He looks after innovation, product line life cycle and technical support of the water division of the Company. He started his career as a Research Microbiologist with Nalco Pacific R&D in Singapore in 1997. Prior to Nalco, Ma Xi worked as a visiting scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute for Environment (EAWAG). Ma Xi graduated from Nanjing University and holds two Master degrees from the National University of Singapore and Chinese Academy of Science respectively.
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Zhenzhen Xu
Author: Zhenzhen Xu
Zhenzhen leads CWR’s stewardship initiatives which focus on rolling out the Alliance for Water Stewardship’s (AWS) International Water Stewardship Standard across Asia Pacific. She has more than 10 years of experience in the field of industrial water solutions, corporate water stewardship and sustainable financing. Previously, Zhenzhen was based in Shanghai, where she established AWS China, heading a team to design and implement on-ground water stewardship programmes for leading MNCs, global brands, Chinese corporations as well as industrial parks and even university campuses. There, she worked closely with multi-stakeholders in critical regions such as the Yangtze and Pearl River Deltas as well as the Bohai Bay Area. Her time spent with businesses, local governments and NGOs to enhance catchment management through strategy & operational roundtables, trainings and site pilots provides valuable insights to managing basin risks. Zhenzhen also advises them on policy interventions and market incentives to build sustainable and holistic models to protect watersheds. Prior to this, she worked for the International Finance Corporation (IFC), co-leading their China Water Program; Veolia Water and Sogreah Consultancy. She holds a Bachelor of Environmental Engineering from Tongji University and a Master of Environmental Management and Development from the Australian National University.
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Michael Spencer
Author: Michael Spencer
Michael Spencer is Chair of the global Alliance for Water Stewardship and Secretary of Water Stewardship Australia. He is a former Head of Marketing and Communication at the FSC International and was the founding CEO of the FSC in Australia. In his corporate career he was the first Head of Corporate Citizenship at National Australia Bank, served as Vice President Communication at BHP Billiton, Vice President Corporate Affairs at BlueScope Steel and Senior Advisor to the Premier of Victoria. He is a Fellow in the Department of Business Law and Taxation at Monash University, teaches communication at RMIT University.
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