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Our Insights 25 Aug 2011

Water Water Everywhere

By Jeff Erikson

Water surrounds me, both literally and figuratively.

I am in Stockholm – a city of islands – this week to attend World Water Week, an annual conference sponsored by the Stockholm International Water Institute. I am here at the invitation of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and yesterday facilitated a fascinating workshop WBCSD sponsored on water risk and some of the tools being developed to assess and manage it. Our panelists represented NGOs (Ceres, The Nature Conservancy, WRI), investors (Robeco) and the corporate sector (Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Diversey and ConocoPhillips). They previewed four tools recently released or currently under development:

In addition to the presentations, we had a robust Q&A with the audience, during which the conversation strayed well beyond the specific tools to broader implications of the escalating global water crisis. Part of my role as moderator was to sum up the session with a set of key takeaways. Below is a recap of the most compelling issues, insights and challenges:

  1. Water is complex. (see below)
  2. Assessing water risk is a lot work. It requires good data, robust analysis and commitment of time, effort and expertise.
  3. Getting the “right” data, fit for purpose, is critical. But the data you get will probably be incomplete, and you’ll need to work with what you have.
  4. Go Glocal. Both global and local perspectives are essential.
  5. Assess your full value chain. Understanding your company’s risk requires that you understand not only your direct operations, but water use and vulnerability in both you supply chain and in your markets.
  6. Impact is not the same as risk. Your facility can have a small impact on its water resource and still face a significant risk of business interruption – if the water isn’t there, it’s not there for anyone.
  7. Source is not the same as location. It’s important to understand the source of your facilities’ water, which may be some distance and in a different circumstance than where your facilities are physically located.
  8. Employee access to sanitation is an under-acknowledged but critical element of water risk. This is a life-and-death situation in many developing countries, and if your employees aren’t healthy you can’t run your business efficiently.
  9. Understanding water risk is only the beginning. Effectively managing it is even harder, and it’s where all of the value is, so robust management processes are essential.
  10. Integrate your water strategy with your core business. If they are not truly aligned with each other, you will get the full value of neither.
  11. Engaging with external stakeholders is not optional. You need them to understand local priorities, get critical data and collaborate on solutions.
  12. We must shift our water paradigm from gulp to sip. No longer can we just expect an abundant water supply in areas where we need it.

Water is everywhere in Stockholm this week, but that is not the case around the globe. Businesses – as well as individuals, communities and nations – need water to prosper. And more effort is required to ensure a sustainable supply.

To learn more about our current thinking on water, and how SustainAbility can help your company think through how to respond to the growing challenges related to water, please contact me at



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