Corporations are Critical to Protect Valuable Freshwater Sources

The world's leading corporations — based in Shanghai and other business hubs across the globe — must take immediate steps to reduce water usage if their practices are to be sustainable. (© istockphoto)

We all use fresh water every day; however, the fact remains that a large amount of the water used daily in the United States — and around the world — is by companies. That’s because water is not only vital to survival, it’s vital to our global economy. Energy generation, agricultural irrigation, industrial processes and mining, oil and gas activities all use water as a major input; in the U.S., these activities account for over 80 percent of our freshwater use.

So it makes sense that companies are looking for ways to better understand and address the business risks presented by increasing water scarcity and degraded quality. Companies are beginning to recognize their water footprints are important considerations in their business strategies.

For this reason, water is a hot topic at this week’s Fortune Brainstorm GREEN conference underway in Laguna Nigel, California. At this gathering of some of the best and brightest thinkers in sustainability, CEOs and other leaders from corporations and NGOs are tackling tough environmental topics, including the energy-water-food nexus and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas production.

To address these and other challenging water-related issues, a number of tools and approaches have been developed to help frame a company’s water usage strategy and raise awareness among employees and consumers. However, these tools do not fully address impacts on freshwater ecosystems and biodiversity, nor do they fully factor in the increasingly unpredictable effects of climate change.

In order to help bridge this gap, CI is working with a number of leading companies to help them access more information about fresh water and develop approaches for adapting to increasingly uncertain conditions.

For example, last year the World Business Council on Sustainable Development added CI’s biodiversity hotspots — the richest and most threatened areas of plant and animal life on Earth — to its Global Water Tool, which is used by leading global businesses to map their water use and assess risks to their operations and supply chains. CI believes the addition of the hotspots is an important step in helping companies better understand potential impacts to freshwater biodiversity. For instance, while hotspots cover just over 15 percent of the Earth’s surface, they are home to over half of all freshwater fish.

We are also working with partners on developing water-related content in the Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool (IBAT). This is a mapping tool designed to help companies and other users get accurate, up-to-date biodiversity information to help inform their decisions. Before a company begins construction on a project, it can use IBAT to determine whether or not a facility it’s looking to develop is in the same area as an important wetland or critical habitat for a freshwater species on the verge of extinction.

CI has also begun working with organizations such as the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA), which serves to strengthen information, institutions and action around climate adaptation to promote a new vision for sustainable development that takes the uncertain future of our freshwater supply into consideration.

As with all conservation work, the local context is important, so CI is also working at the project level with companies to account more fully for the potential effects of climate change on the water resources which are critical to their operations and supply chains.

In Colombia, for example, the Bogotá Water and Sewage Company (EEAB) is participating in CI’s Integrated National Adaptation Project (PDF – 144.65 KB) to better understand adaptation to climate change, including potential impacts to their water supply. We are also working with Starbucks in Mexico and elsewhere to implement a robust approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation that includes consideration of potential changes in precipitation and impacts on coffee cultivation.

In a session at Brainstorm GREEN today, CI’s CEO Peter Seligmann and the chairman of Walmart, Rob Walton, will be speaking about “next generation capitalism.” In order to lead the green wave of corporate sustainability into the future, we encourage companies to consider their own water profiles, and how they can take advantage of new tools and new partnerships to better understand and manage their water risks.

Marielle Canter Weikel is the director of corporate freshwater strategies in CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business.

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