Interview: Water has been ignored globally as the engine for green growth, says Joppe Cramwinckel, Director Water, WBCSD

Director Water at World Business Council for Sustainable Development talks about the low levels of awareness in businesses about the importance of water as a resource and the current roadblocks being faced in

solving water related challenges.

What are your thoughts on water being one of the main challenges for sustainable development across the globe, especially in India?

Water has been ignored globally as the engine for green growth. Notion is that water is always there and there is right to access hence there are no economic incentives to develop water infrastructure.

Although we may have enough water currently in places where we need it, the threat to that availability is huge. Slowly people will start to wake up to this reality as also the fact that water- energy- food are related. One can’t grow energy without increasing water use since power plants need cooling water. Agriculture (Food) also needs water.  Ground water is getting depleted and hence we need to do something about water use and thus agricultural productivity.

Water issues/challenges have not been communicated properly to all sectors. Proper attention is being given gradually. The awareness is now increasing and the Rio+20 summit saw a considerable focus on water challenges and its linkages with energy, food as well as other industries. Though the awareness is increasing, there is still lot to be desired in terms of action.

Do you think appropriate action is being taken to solve water issues?

The realization that water is of strategic importance for global businesses accelerated about 2 years ago. 25 companies took the lead which included representatives from sectors such as Oil and gas, power, chemical, cement etc. However, awareness levels in the overall business community are still low. The leading businesses have to set standards and influence smaller companies through their supply chain.

Change is happening slowly and some governments are also beginning to understand the seriousness of the issue. Since businesses see more longer term than government – they are able to see imminent threats and thus are changing their business models in order to be more sustainable.

One of the biggest challenges facing the water sector is that the thinking around water is still in silos. Linkage between water and the other themes is still not established and recognized at a large scale. Water issues are usually dealt with at the sub national level i.e.  at the state level. However, other issues like Energy are dealt with at the national level because of which the approaches adopted to solve the two issues are very different. If we consider that the water challenge is important for the economy then we need to raise awareness at the national government level and that’s still a bit of far cry in India.

Globally, water issues are being recognized but action is complicated because water touches so many other areas. Hence its not a problem which can be solved by the water people alone. e.g. Water use for agriculture is determined by price of electricity in India. If power regulator is only regulating electricity and skewed policies purely supporting supply of cheap electricity to farmers get instituted, then its detrimental for the water availability in that area.

Do water issues get the attention that they deserve, if not why?

If someone asks the questions if there is scarcity of water – Then the answer is ‘No’. There is no scarcity of water in totality. There is fixed amount of water on earth but either it is not there where we need it or its too much or the quality is very poor. Since there isn’t any uniform view about this issue, by the time action is taken, it results in being very expensive and localized.

Also, contrary to popular belief, water challenge is not only an issue for water scarce geographies. In fact, if an area is water scarce, it would be far more efficient in its water usage practices as compared to other areas. e.g. Israel which is relatively a water scarce country has priced water so that its not cheap resulting in development of a water efficient economy. By following practices such as drip irrigation they are able to produce agricultural products and the country is now exporting products which are globally recognized to be water intensive.

Water problems will actually arise in areas which are believed to be abundant in water reserves. Because of this belief they are generally inefficient in water use, tend to have leaks in their distribution systems and mismanage their resources. As a consequence of this belief, the demand of water slowly increases and suddenly people find themselves in a situation where they are very inefficient in water use and grossly dependent on inefficient water dependent industries and suddenly the whole system maybe on the verge of collapsing .Therefore its imperative that areas which are not currently stressed for water should start thinking about the water challenge proactively.

What are the major roadblocks in solving the water challenge?

As the popular saying goes, ‘you can’t manage what you don’t measure’. Lack of trustworthy information on water availability is a major challenge. Reliable data which can’t be manipulated needs to be made available for concrete action to be taken.  Ability to forecast water availability is another challenge. Agencies forecast energy demand and supply, but unlike energy water sector can’t do that as its too fragmented. India has very low number of water measurement points hence no one exactly knows the resource availability. On the energy side, since resource is so valuable we spend money to quantify what exists.

The other challenge with water is that though it is essential for all actors in society, yet all those actors don’t necessarily have a say in how water is managed.  Users have to be an integral part of the management process and the solution. For example: in river basins where industry and agriculture co-exist and if industry wants more water, one of the solutions is to improve water productivity of agriculture rather than desalinate.  Equitable solutions need to be found which can support the interests of all the actors in the water nexus. For industry, the value of water could be say USD200-300 for a unit, so to pay USD3 makes sense. On the other hand, the value of water for agriculture may be say USD1 so it doesn’t make sense for them to pay a higher price.

Can you elucidate initiatives undertaken by WBCSD for promoting responsible water management?

WBCSD launched the water project around 8 years ago. The water project outlined futures where business would understand what sort of threats and opportunities there may exist in relation to water purely to raise awareness amongst businesses.

WBSCD has also created the Global Water Tool (GWT) which was developed as a structured mechanism for companies to articulate their own water risks. The tool can be used by global companies who wish to know where they may potentially have water related issues in their operations. GWT is a risk management tool to help companies assess which locations in their global portfolio are water stressed or where biodiversity is getting affected by the company’s operations.  The GWT is a perfect starting point for companies to identify if they have any water risk. The tool is easy to navigate, use and communicate to management. Apart from businesses, currently the tool is being used by research organizations as well as financial institutions like banks who need to know the risk of the businesses they are lending to. The value of GWT lies in the fact that it provides easy access to global data sets on water stress.

WBCSD is now planning to develop a local India Water tool (IWT) which will help companies become aware of the water inventory in their geography of operation. Global data sets are not enough if companies want to go extremely local. But challenge for IWT is the quality of data which can also feed into the GWT and improve that.  IWT is still under formulation and WBCSD wants to ensure it meets the needs of Indian businesses. The value drivers for the local India tool are similar to that of the Global Water tool.  The tool will be built in stages such that whenever better data comes, the tool gets enhanced. IWT is expected to be launched within a year. In the first phase, IWT will be universal. In the second phase, the tool will be customized sector-wise so as to enable changes in the input (not data sets as they are independent) and make the language more sector specific. 15 companies representing a broad spread of sectors, including food and beverage, construction, cement, agro, chemical have committed to the IWT till now. The intent is to bring the water related issues to the forefront and help businesses in their journey to being more sustainable.

This interview has been conducted by Aparna Khandelwal, a sustainability consultant.