Opinion: Corporations Need To Do More To Solve Global Water Problems

Water insecurity and low resiliency revealed by the Covid-19 pandemic make it clear that stewardship is not enough: We need greater collaboration, innovation, and engagement with public policy

June 19, 2020 — As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the world, health professionals constantly remind us to wash our hands and practice good hygiene.

Simple enough … if you have access to clean water. But more than 2 million Americans today are without reliable access to safe drinking water, and around the world many lack access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene. Progress in ensuring global water security and resiliency has been incremental at best.

The corporate sector has an opportunity and responsibility to do more than it’s currently doing to help solve global water problems.

I once applauded the move from water management (focused on water use within companies’ own walls) to water stewardship (including water use in their supply chain, the watersheds in which they operate, and consumer use of products). But it’s now clear that’s not enough. Water stewardship, which typically includes goals for reducing water use, is stalled because it is a limited value proposition and doesn’t leverage the private sector’s unique strengths. If we are going to solve our global water crisis, corporations need to adopt a more comprehensive water strategy that includes ramped-up cross-sector collaboration, innovation, and engagement in public policy. A focus on “water footprinting” and “water neutrality” does not tap into the real expertise and reach of the private sector to contribute to solving “wicked water problems.”

A Wicked Problem

Global water security is a wicked problem. In other words, it

  • is complex and difficult to clearly define
  • is the source of unforeseen consequences
  • lacks a clear solution
  • demands adoption of new behavior
  • isn’t within the responsibility of any one organization
  • is characterized by chronic policy failure.

The last two, in particular, are where the corporate sector can and should play an important role in vastly improving water security and resiliency through innovation in technology, public policy, business models, financing, and partnerships.

Collaborating Across Sectors

Different groups have different sets of expertise to contribute to solving wicked water problems. Entrepreneurs have speed but not scale, while the public sector has scale but not speed. Multinationals, non-governmental organizations, and academics sit somewhere in between.

Bringing these stakeholders together to solve a wicked problem is challenging but possible. The innovation platform XGenesis has proven this with its innovative approach to “lead entrepreneurs to found companies the world desperately needs.”

Currently, for businesses, collective action around water typically means engaging with NGOs focused on conservation within watersheds. While this is useful, it does not fully leverage the characteristics of the business sector, such as scale, speed in decision making, communication and marketing, innovation, and large workforces. These attributes of a business can be tapped to create greater business value while also increasing our ability to solve wicked water problems.

An example of a global company engaged and investing in entrepreneurs is AB InBev’s 100 + Accelerator, which leverages the power of the company (think: scale, skills, and workforce talent) to scale sustainability solutions. Working with accelerator startups, AB InBev can deliver solutions well beyond its value chain or the watersheds in which it operates by scaling technology solutions that benefit its business, consumers, workforce, communities, other companies, and civil society.

Fixing Policy Failure  

Businesses must also step up to address the chronic policy failure that has led to threats of “Day Zeros” around the world. To be clear, I do not advocate that the private sector assume the role and responsibilities of the public sector. The public sector, while slow to innovate, has what it takes to scale innovations for dramatically positive impact (case in point: the California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act). Instead, the private sector should work with other stakeholders (beyond just NGOs) to develop and promote innovations in technology and policy that the public sector can then scale.

Examples of company involvement in public policy solutions include the work of the public, private, and civil society partnership 2030 Water Resources Group (WRG) and corporate partners Nestle, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, and AB InBev. WRG focuses on innovation in technology and public policy, supporting “country-level collaboration designed to unite diverse groups with a common interest in the sustainable management of water resources.”

Alignment for Change

In the Davos Manifesto 2020, World Economic Forum founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab states, “A company that has a multinational scope of activities not only serves all those stakeholders who are directly engaged but acts itself as a stakeholder — together with governments and civil society — of our global future. Corporate global citizenship requires a company to harness its core competencies, its entrepreneurship, skills and relevant resources in collaborative efforts with other companies and stakeholders to improve the state of the world.”

To solve the wicked problem of water, every corporation must “harness its core competencies” and advocate for good governance and improved public policy. Corporations must support the mobilization of successful entrepreneurs from outside the world of water through programs such as XGenesis10.10.10. and X-PRIZE and actively engage in public policy change through programs such as WRG.

Business as usual is literally killing people: More of the same is not getting us to water security and resiliency fast enough. During times of crisis like these, when equitable access to safe water is crucial, we realize more than ever that stewardship is not enough to solve the wicked problems of water. Corporations have a unique role to play in solving wicked water problems by working more closely with entrepreneurs and the public sector along with more traditional players such as NGOs. Corporations can develop and execute truly breakout water strategies to scale innovative technologies and public policies. The time is now.

This article was originally published in Ensia.com.

Will Sarni

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of water strategy consultancy, Water Foundry. He is also the CEO of the Colorado River Basin Fund, the first placed-based water-focused investment fund in the United States. Prior to Water Foundry, Sarni was a managing director at Deloitte Consulting where he established and led the water strategy practice. He was the founder and CEO of DOMANI, a sustainability strategy firm, prior to Deloitte. Sarni is the author of five books. Sarni is a co-founder of WetDATA and a host of the podcast, The Stream with Will and Tom. He is a board member of Flowater, Silver Bullet, Project WET and the Rocky Mountain Rowing Club. He was the Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board for the WAITRO Global Water Innovation Summit 2020 and was on the Scientific Program Committee for Stockholm World Water Week from 2013 through 2019. His advisory work includes working with the 2020 X-PRIZE (Infinity Water Prize), as a Bold Visioneer for the 2016 X-PRIZE Safe Drinking Water Team and a Technical Advisor for the Climate Bonds Initiative: Nature- Based Solutions for Climate and Water Resilience. He is also on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Water Security.

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