Audacious Water
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Audacious Water

Photo by Justin Wilkens on Unsplash

New Science Based Targets for Watershed Sustainability

It’s time for an approach to water stewardship that will move the needle on a scale that matters

In the past 10 years corporations have stepped up in unprecedented ways as stewards of water. But to date they’ve primarily taken a “within-the-four-walls” approach, prioritizing typical corporate responsibility outreach and internal efficiency gains. And in cases when companies do move water stewardship efforts beyond their four walls, the work translates into what my colleague Jon Radke at Coca-Cola calls “random acts of kindness” that depend on shovel-ready projects. These projects are very important steps — but alone they will never matter strategically to a company. Water stewardship needs to move the needle on sustainability at a scale that matters — at the watershed level, on which the company depends and also which it directly impacts.

We now have the opportunity to help corporations assess their enterprise impacts and dependencies and then zoom in to their sites and their watersheds in a way that would move the sustainability needle the most. Building upon the science-based targets framework for areas like biodiversity and carbon, Future H2O-B and the NGO The Earth Genome have just been awarded a contract from the Science Based Targets Network to help develop science based targets for water (SBTW). The goal? To provide a framework for understanding — from a company perspective — enterprise-wide impacts and dependencies related to water while also identifying basins where their work is needed. From there, companies can then do the science to figure out which interventions will produce the most meaningful changes in those basins. Ultimately, it provides an easy organizational structure for delivering science to companies in order to approach water stewardship in a way that pushes the needle on sustainability.

Pilot project to test new methodology for water

So how are we going to test and scale this new approach? Top NGOs including WWF, TNC, WRI and CDP recently developed this new science-based targets methodology for water with input from industry and academic partners. And Future H2O-B and The Earth Genome are going to help them test the new methodology through a pilot project with several corporations, giving them the necessary feedback to improve the methodology so its application can be replicated. It involves five steps:

  1. Assess: Define the spectrum of locations where a corporation and its value chain may impact or depend on water;
  2. Interpret and Prioritize: Define a list of the high-priority issues and locations where targets will initially be set;
  3. Measure, Set and Disclose: Define targets, in terms of how much action is needed by whom; commit to action publicly;
  4. Act: Make a plan for action and implement measures to meet targets; and
  5. Track: Monitor progress, adapt if necessary, and report results publicly.

Water stewardship needs to move the needle on sustainability at a scale that matters — at the watershed level, on which the company depends and also which it directly impacts.

— John Sabo

If successful, this approach is not only a huge win for our watershed sustainability, but for corporations, too. It’s a methodology that makes water stewardship approachable, clear, replicable, and rooted in science. It’s not complicated or too onerous. It gives companies a standardized but flexible approach to setting water sustainability goals and finding “partners in crime” to tackle projects while also upping their game. Instead of simply committing to water stewardship standards set by organizations like Alliance for Water Stewardship, this systematic science-based approach gives companies the resources to make meaningful, measurable change — which at the end of the day is much more compelling for their stakeholders and ultimately better for business.

Why water sustainability means business sustainability

At the most basic level this sustainability and stewardship work improves a company’s license to operate where they have facilities. But over the years sustainability has evolved — and customer demands have evolved with them:

  • Customers are increasingly demanding that companies do this kind of work because they want to know the products they’re using are sustainably sourced and/or produced, or that these companies at least have some eye for the impacts that they have on ecosystems.
  • Water stewardship, and sustainability generally, is now an important business strategy, driving companies to constantly innovate and step it up a notch with their approach.
  • And standards, like the ones we’re developing, can help raise the bar so that companies which might not have the best track records can set goals and then achieve those goals, improving their track record in a measurable, scientific way that satisfies their customers and other important stakeholders.
  • And finally, most companies depend on natural resources for profitability. This approach forces companies to not only think about the impacts their facilities might have on a basin, but the dependencies those companies have on the natural resources impacted by their operations.

This systematic science-based approach gives companies the resources to make meaningful, measurable change — which at the end of the day is much more compelling for their stakeholders and ultimately better for business.

— John Sabo

At the end of the day, water stewardship is no longer about random acts of kindness and gold stars for companies, but about profitability and business sustainability. Using science-based targets for watersheds has the chance to help companies move the water sustainability needle — for both business and the environment.

For more information about ASU Future H2O’s work and research on creating opportunities for global water abundance, visit our website and subscribe to our newsletter.

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