South Africa is far from meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on water, and there is still much that the private sector can do in support of these vital imperatives. For those companies with the will to make a difference, the tools are readily available.
The planet’s water consumption is soon expected to exceed the available supply if current water practices continue. According to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (Unido), global freshwater demand will reach 6,900 km3 per year by 2030; this means that it will be 40% greater than the global sustainable fresh water supply of 4,200 km3 per year.
Avoiding this scenario will require the active participation of all water users in practically applying the principles of water stewardship. In essence, this involves using water in a way that is socially and culturally equitable, environmentally sustainable, and economically beneficial. This can best be achieved through a stakeholder-inclusive process that includes both site-based and catchment-based actions.
A start has certainly been made in the business community, with many companies highlighting water issues in their policies. However, more remains to be achieved in taking the vital steps toward implementation of more sustainable practices. Although the prospect of integrating water stewardship into corporate policies and practices can appear daunting, the groundwork has been done in terms of developing global best practice tools. It is now really about corporate will and commitment.
Among the leading tools in this regard is the International Water Stewardship Standard from the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS). The AWS is a member of ISEAL – the global membership organisation for ambitious, collaborative and transparent sustainability systems – so its water stewardship framework is credible, beneficial and globally applicable, particularly to major water users.
Step by step
There are a number of steps in working towards the AWS Standard, the first being for site owners to gather and understand all relevant water-related data. This vital stage, while time-consuming, ensures that future decisions are well-rooted in a foundation of accurate information. It will include data on the site itself, such as water balance, water quality, water flows and storage volumes, and water-related costs and revenues. It will also include information on the water sources from which the site draws, the locations to which it returns its discharges, and the catchments upon which it relies.
The Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) framework is credible, beneficial and globally applicable, particularly to major water users
A plan can then be prepared, clarifying the vision, goals and targets of sustainable water management within the organisation. This will highlight the people responsible, the process for reporting, and the ways that the plan will be measured and monitored – to ensure that the steps taken by the company are sustained and are continually progressing. This is where certification against the AWS Standard plays an important role, as it provides a systematic framework to track progress towards water security – and to correct the course of action where necessary.
Key to the process is close engagement with other stakeholders in the catchment, allowing companies to communicate and disclose the progress in their water stewardship journey. It is important to engage in an open and transparent manner – to understand the priorities of other players, to share plans and to collaborate on solutions.
Applying the AWS Standard helps address essentially three types of risk, all of which have financial implications: physical, regulatory and reputational. The standard also allows companies to be certified, providing official recognition of their systems and efforts in water stewardship. At the same time, companies should not consider the AWS Standard as simply a pathway to certification. Rather, it is an effective way of achieving on-the-ground results towards water security for the site and its stakeholders.