Freshwater bottom line for business


For businesses, dabbling in freshwater conservation has largely been a philanthropic endeavor. But that has changed in recent years, as companies have awakened to a simple fact: There is no business without water. Around the world, freshwater supplies are under siege. Polluted, wasted and altered by climate change, the resource that supports life on Earth is in trouble.

The CEO Water Mandate was created to help companies take action to protect their interests by protecting freshwater. 'No one wants to be associated with dead fish in a dry river,' says Stuart Orr, WWF International Freshwater Manager. 'WWF can help companies address water issues from an environmental perspective, and the CEO Water Mandate can help them take it further by advocating for long-term policy solutions that benefit business, communities and nature.'

A focal point of the group's sixth working conference in Cape Town, South Africa, was the launch of the 'Guide to Responsible Business Engagement with Water Policy.' Orr, co-author of the guide, says it's a framework to turn risk into opportunity. 'Innovative partnerships at the local level are yielding important changes. Instead of guarding these successes like trade secrets, companies in the CEO Water Mandate are sharing lessons for the greater good.'

But these companies aren't motivated by altruism alone. 'We make no apology for being very business focused in our approach to water issues, because that's what guarantees our serious involvement,' says Andy Wales, Head of Sustainable Development for SABMiller, one of the world's largest breweries.

Wales says it's the willingness of companies to feed experience from the field into products like the responsible engagement guide that makes the CEO Water Mandate work. 'Right from the start, the CEO Water Mandate has been action focused. Some people say, ‘You only have 70 companies signed on.' For me, a group of 70 companies that are genuinely committed, really pushing things forward and prepared to test new ideas, learn and debate is much more powerful than a group of 250 companies that sign up and do nothing,' he says.

The new guide offers a principled approach for companies to collaborate with communities and governments on water policy, which may include water prices, quality standards and safeguards against pollution, and construction and maintenance of water infrastructure.

Phakamani Buthelezi, CEO of the Breede-Overberg Catchment Management Agency near Cape Town, says the guide can help both industry and government combat the perception that companies are more interested in the bottom line than social good. 'Partnerships with organizations like WWF and industry are important to make a difference. But in making a difference, we should not dictate to people how things will happen. It has to be an inclusive process. They should have a say, so they also own the process. It's about co-ownership and co-responsibility,' says Buthelezi.

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