What is Good Water Stewardship?
With a growing awareness of the value and fragility of our water resources, it was expected there would be increased interest in knowing more about how we as a society interact with water. But what do people really want to know and expect? One significant aspect of this dialogue is understanding the true meaning of water stewardship. That is, how do we, whether a company, municipality, nation or individual, act as stewards of water? We need to realize that stewardship means caring for something of value so it is also available for those who come after us. It means we use the resource but do not own it. We often talk about current society being stewards of our environment, ecosystem and natural resources, such that future generations can also benefit. Actually, good stewardship is the underpinning of the concept of sustainability and sustainable development.
This interest in water has spawned a great deal of activity addressing many aspects of water stewardship. In this paper, we intend to give an overview of the various elements of water stewardship, and what types of activities are in play. However, we do not present an exhaustive analysis of various methodologies and tools. It is important to first understand there are many aspects to managing water stewardship, and these aspects are in addition to the actual practices and behaviors of good stewardship. Managing water stewardship includes: understanding your relation and interaction with water resources; realizing what impacts are associated with these interactions and what risks and opportunities they present; being able to measure progress and performance; having robust reporting mechanisms; being able to objectively and credibly verify what you claim and, finally, having mechanisms to acknowledge proactive leadership through recognition and rewards. All of these are important elements that build upon baseline regulatory and legal requirements, thus allowing society to better understand how it is performing as stewards and, ideally, to compel us to do better. Why? Although water is not going to “run out,” having sufficient clean water, at the right place at the right time, is becoming more and more of a challenge as world population and economies continue to grow.
We can divide current activities into a few categories that allow one to more logically and systematically identify and evaluate available tools and methodologies to help improve water stewardship. These are: methods for measuring conditions and impacts; identifying indicators and metrics to be able to report in a way that allows stakeholders to evaluate, compare and benchmark; and being able to have consensus-based agreement on what defines water stewardship, such that reference points and benchmarks can be identified for desired behavior.
The first of these, measurement, is probably one of the most active areas of work. We typically see this referred to as water footprinting, and it seems as if a new footprinting tool and methodology is presented every month. The list is too exhaustive to analyze all of them here, but some key concepts bear noting. First, we need to realize that although many tools exist or are proposed, no one “perfect” tool or methodology answers all questions in all situations. In general, tools try to relate water usage to resulting impact – be it quantity, quality, local scarcity or a combination of the three. The Veolia Water Impact Index, discussed in an earlier article, Measuring True Impacts on Water Availability, is one such methodology, which assesses local implications to quantity, quality and availability. And there are others, but it is important to note that each works best at different scales; some are more volume driven, and others focus on regional stress factors, and so on. The Water Footprint Network Tool and GEMI’s Local
Water Tool are others, to name a few. The bottom line is one should chose a tool based on the need – what kind of information do you need, and for what will you use it? In general, though, this family of tools helps determine how you are interacting with the water resource, and what type of impact and risk that presents.
The next category deals with reporting and disclosure. On one hand, reporting on water stewardship may seem rather straightforward in that you think you simply talk about gallons and quality. But it turns out it is not that simple, and there is much complexity in communicating the context in which one reports performance. As has occurred with carbon disclosure guidelines and protocol, there needs to be some agreed upon framework and guidelines within which organizations can disclose and report water stewardship performance and actions, such that it is credible and usable by stakeholders and the public. In this arena, we see global initiatives, such as the Carbon Disclosure Project for Water, the Global Reporting Initiative and the United Nations CEO Water Mandate Water Disclosure Guidelines. All of these efforts are striving to develop credible, consistent, but practical, methods for organizations to report on their water resource impact and stewardship using comparable metrics.
The third category, and probably the most important, addresses the basic question of what it means to be a good water steward. This question is paramount in that it affects a stakeholder’s understanding and trust, policy and regulatory decisions and organizational reputation and branding. This third category is also important because it ties together all other aspects of water stewardship, including how one measures their role and impact, and how this is reported and shared. But this topic is also one that is not as well developed from a global perspective. Only recently have we seen an organized attempt to address this need by way of the Alliance for Water Stewardship’s Global Water Stewardship Standard. This standard is a performance driven, rating and certification approach, which defines criteria for varying levels of water stewardship, describes approaches and expectations to achieve these criteria and outlines requirements for reporting and stakeholder engagement. The ultimate intent is that an organization can be “certified” as a water steward by meeting certain criteria, and this performance has been independently verified. We have seen this approach of using certification and ratings standards to encourage performance in the building design and operation through the Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED) standard. The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, or EPEAT, is another such certification program.
The Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) work is cutting edge and quite ambitious in that it would lead to a worldwide standard, which defines and demonstrates true forward thinking water stewardship. It utilizes the measurement tools and reporting guidelines as resources to meet the various criteria, such that an organization can leverage these towards efficient and systemic performance. The standard is only now in its first draft and ample opportunity exists for review, comment and pilot testing. Information is readily available at www.allianceforwaterstewardship.org/.
So why is all of this so important? Two reasons: First, without some degree of aggressive but manageable water stewardship, we will put so much stress on this precious resource that growth, be it population or economic, will quickly come in conflict with how much water there really is to go around. To avoid desperately having to pick winners and losers in a crisis situation, we should be more deliberate and strategic. But second, if this drive towards stewardship is not organized and practical, it will be cumbersome, inefficient and intimidating. Organizations will be reluctant to proceed down such paths if it means investing inordinate amounts of effort. And if this happens, stakeholders miss an opportunity to be able to engage, participate and monitor progress. The vision is that in integrating these developing approaches we can protect our water resources in a sustainable manner – and that is good for all of society.