Why water stewardship?
While there have been a range of different voluntary initiatives with many of these promoting increased transparency and accountability, they lack independent verification which leaves much room for improvement.
The Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) is an umbrella organisation that has led the development of a globally consistent framework that outlines the expectations of responsible water stewardship. This framework is outlined in the AWS International Water Stewardship Standard (AWS Standard). The AWS Standard defines a set of water stewardship criteria and indicators for how water should be stewarded at a site- and catchment-level in a way that is environmentally, socially, and economically beneficial. Implementing the AWS Standard focuses on four key goals:
- Sustainable water balance
- Good water quality
- Healthy important water-related areas
- Good water governance.
Asia Pacific Water Stewardship Forum
The Asia Pacific Water Stewardship Forum recently held during the International Riversymposium brought together a range of academics, practitioners and private sector implementers of water stewardship. In the forum, stakeholders discussed how water stewardship was progressing towards the four water stewardship goals. A range of perspectives were presented highlighting the challenges and opportunities for water stewardship in different contexts. Non-adopters explored the opportunities and barriers to embracing the water stewardship approach. In response, implementers of the standard shed light on how adopting the six steps (see below) towards water stewardship had helped address water challenges and improved organisational cultures and competitiveness.
Philippine case study
In the Philippines ongoing multi-stakeholder networks have enabled a process that brought together different stakeholders to agree on development and enactment of an integrated water conservation policy, but fell short of building sufficient trust between different interest groups. Local actors from academia, government and civil society coalesced around a shared interest prioritising conservation, but this shared interest excluded corporate actors who expressed the need for conservation and development. The enacted policy created a win-lose outcome and a breakdown in trust between civil society, academic and corporate actors.
The case study raised thee questions:
- Can the water stewardship provide a framework to allow competing interest to come together?
- Does the water stewardship process of third party verification aid in the building of trust across different interest groups?
- How to promote water stewardship at a catchment-scale where the benefits for each corporate actor may be marginal, but the potential cumulative benefits significant?
Biosphere case study
The Westernport Biosphere is one case study that highlights how different stakeholders from larger corporates, small businesses and even schools are involved in the development and promotion of water stewardship plans across the catchment. Individual site plans are being developed for horticulture farms, plant nurseries, chicken and livestock producers, an egg producer, a hardware store, schools and golf courses. Inghams Enterprises was one of the first adopters of a water approach piloting the first Australian Water Stewardship Standard in 2009.
Hudson Cameron, Advanced Water Treatment Plant Manager at Inghams, shared some of the positive experience since embracing the water stewardship journey. Key improvements have included a renewed focus on efficient on-site measures, along with off-site activities strengthening relations with catchment stakeholders. While initially investment costs were high, savings have achieved a cost neutral outcome. However, the social license and improved community relationships were the primary benefits from participating in the water stewardship journey. These relationship improvements are now a key driver to continue to strive towards achieving higher water stewardship goals.
Yellow River case study
In the Yellow River region there has been a persistent over-reliance on engineering or ‘hard’ solutions to water challenges. While engineering solutions have enabled industrial-style development, the impacts on the health of water ecosystems is increasingly questioned and alternative pathways are sought. Dr Zhu Donglin from Jiangsu Engineering Consulting Centre sees that the water stewardship approach can “help bring a more integrated mix of hard and soft solutions to water management”. While there is a need to develop successful pilot case studies, Dr Donglin believes that the potential scale of water stewardship is enormous if policy can be influenced.
If there is government support for adopting water stewardship, this could be a significant driver for adoption in China. However, examples from companies like Ecolab are demonstrating that one does not need to wait for government policy. Ecolab started its journey in water stewardship in 2012. To date, investments have focused on internal on-site improvements in water infrastructure. These efforts have resulted in significant reduction in pollution loads and, at the same time, brought down costs. Ecolab has also entered into a partnership with AWS and WWF China to host stakeholder forums that have helped increase the awareness of on-site actions and gain a better understanding of ‘shared’ water concerns.
Growing water stewardship
The market for water stewardship is still emerging and the examples from China and Southeast Asia highlight the potential for growth in the approach. While top-down policy support may be a significant driver for adoption in China, policy support is not likely to be a strong driver for uptake in other regions. Early lessons indicate that companies will invest in water stewardship to better understand the opportunities for water efficiency on site. But the process is also a powerful tool for building stronger relationships and a social license with community and government stakeholders.
Published 17 November 2015.