Sustainability Leaders Promote New Global Standard for Freshwater Stewardship

By Elizabeth Ferruelo
Hotel in Luzhi China
After the April release of the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) Standard, I had the opportunity to speak to several founding partners including: Lisa Wojnarowski Downes, North America director of water stewardship at The Nature Conservancy; Jerry Lynch, chief sustainability officer for General Mills;
Emilio Tenuta, vice president of corporate sustainability at Ecolab; and Edwin Piñero, senior vice president for sustainability at Veolia Water North America.

Predictions of a 40 percent global freshwater shortage by 2030 have inspired action on water stewardship. However, regulations differ by locality, and the cost of water varies by and within regions. Access and public perception are similarly uneven. With this in mind, how do you create water standards that are relevant for mining companies, agricultural interests and utilities alike — from Gujarat, India to Milwaukee? For AWS, it took time, beta tests and an inclusive coalition.

After four years of revising and reiterating, gathering public feedback, and site testing, in April AWS announced the first International Standard — a global framework to promote sustainable freshwater use. “There’s an imperative to do the work,” said Lynch of General Mills. “The standard is a way to ensure you’re making progress against the challenge.”

The development phase

Field trials were conducted across a range of industries: a hospitality company, a chemical manufacturer, a drinking water utility, two paper mills, a power plant, an oil refinery, a cement factory and an asparagus producer, among others.

“What is unique about this is it’s applicable to any site — production facility, farm, municipality — within a watershed … and it doesn’t only look at specifics of water usage for that particular entity, it looks at usage of entire watershed,” Lynch said.

AWS provides a roadmap for how water users can become stewards, or become better stewards. This is defined as driving “water use that is socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial through a stakeholder-inclusive process that involves site- and catchment-based actions.”

The standard was written by an independent committee of 15 experts from eight geographic regions, a third of whom represent business and water service providers, another third the public sector, and the last third civil society. This coalition aimed to create standards that were “globally consistent and locally adaptable.”  Good water governance, improved water balance and quality, and protection of water-related areas with cultural or ecological importance are the pillars around which action is measured.

Lessons learned

Practitioners conducted field tests all over the world, which allowed them to experience how policies are applied in places like the Yangtze River in China, one of the most polluted waterways in the world and a source of drinking water for hundreds of millions of people.

“Last year we piloted a beta test in the lower Yangtze, and the biggest takeaways were growing awareness of water risks and stewardship opportunities at site and corporate levels. Corporations may have broad water goals, but how they mobilize those at the local level is different; there has to be alignment,” noted Emilio Tenuta of Ecolab. “We learned to identify risks that were different than those we anticipated. For example, what drives water scarcity in most cases, is water quality.”

Ecolab has customers in 170 countries and understands firsthand that planning for water risk, particularly in water-stressed areas, is essential to operations. “The biggest realization was that water scarcity and stewardship risks, such as scarcity, climate change, drought and reputational risk, were becoming realities for many of the companies we are serving,” Tenuta continued.

Despite the breadth of industry and geography, test feedback was surprisingly similar, Lisa Wojnarowski Downes of The Nature Conservancy said. Data collection at the watershed level and stakeholder engagement were two of the most common challenges to come out of the beta tests.

As part of the development committee, Veolia Water North America piloted the standard at a wastewater treatment plant. The intensive process of data collection was eye-opening, Senior VP for Sustainability Edwin Piñero said. The cost of collecting data, which would benefit a community of users, was not evenly distributed.  “We need to figure out how to get this data to be shared; we need databases at the watershed level available to all users,” he explained. Veolia’s water impact tool GrowingBlue, along with GEMStat and Water Data Hub, are among the data resources and examples in more than a dozen pages of AWS guidance.

Creating business value

The standard can also help companies gain a competitive advantage. “We’ve seen interest from companies in the paper sector for example; they see it as getting ahead of their competitors to supply companies that have sustainable sourcing requirements,” noted Downes.

The Nature Conservancy together with the Pacific Institute and Water Stewardship Australia initially formed AWS. They were later joined by the World Wildlife Fund, United Nations Global Compact’s CEO Water Mandate and CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), as well as a host of other civil society organizations and private sector partners.

Why do so many large water users support the standard? “When it comes to having a call to action for industry, it’s about making a business case for stewardship. I believe that the standard provides a framework for this at the watershed level,” Tenuta of Ecolab said. “We have to make the case that there is opportunity and need to make more effective decisions.”

Other voluntary disclosure initiatives include the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the Forest Stewardship Council, or even Benefit Corp., which offers a confidential assessment tool.  “The ISO manufacturing certification is a better analogy,” Tenuta continued. “It sets the standard, and through independent verification, measures quality.”

Water stewardship is a complicated process at General Mills, for whom 99 percent of water use occurs outside the company’s operations. “Because so much of this is outside of our direct control, it really does require what we like to call uber-collaboration,” Lynch noted. “The complex nature of this is the single biggest challenge.”

Downes agrees, saying: “If you’re operating in a stressed watershed, you can be the most efficient water user and have excellent pollution controls, but if others in your watershed aren’t as advanced as you are, your own efforts won’t protect you from those risks.”

To summarize the standard, Piñero gave this remark: “The premise behind the standard is that implementers should not only care about their facilities, but how they interact with entire watershed. The hope is that water balance is becoming more holistically managed.”

Image credit: Ecolab

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