Last reviewed 30 April 2018

You’ve conducted a water audit of your premises, identified water-saving efficiencies, and already monitor and report on company targets for water use. Surely that is enough? Laura King reports on what water stewardship can offer a business and why those with facilities and environment responsibility should get involved.

Saving water and caring for our water environment is not a new concept but it hasn’t always had the same buy-in as other sustainability drivers, possibly because as a country, the UK tends to take water for granted. However, having a better handle on what water means to an organisation can offer a number of benefits over and above reducing direct water costs.

What is water stewardship?

Water stewardship means thinking about the company’s use of water in its widest context. As such it has a number of facets.

You have probably seen and heard statistics about the volume of water required to make a cup of coffee (130 litres) or a hamburger (a shocking 3000 litres). When considering that an average bathtub holds about 90 litres of water, the water used to produce a relatively unassuming lunch of a black coffee and burger is equivalent to over a month’s worth of baths.

The water consumed in products like this is often referred to as virtual or embedded water. In the case of a hamburger, this virtual water is mainly used to irrigate the crops used to feed the cattle. But it’s not just the food industry that consumes water — water is intrinsic to almost everything we use or do. Calculating the embedded freshwater water used to produce a product or service is known as water footprinting.

Measuring a water footprint takes the organisation’s water stewardship agenda one step further by providing a better understanding of the wider impact an organisation has on global and local water resources. The next step in water stewardship is to understand the problems and opportunities water can bring about and working to mitigate against risks and seize any benefits.

The final piece of the puzzle means looking outwards towards the wider water catchment and how water is governed. After all, even a tightly-managed facility could face risks if it shares its water resource with those that are not as careful, or is in an area where water is not carefully regulated. This means working in collaboration with others to collectively improve water resources in a catchment.

Irresponsible stewardship of water often manifests itself in environmental problems such as pollution, drought or flooding. Because of this, some may think that water stewardship can only benefit those with a green agenda. However, taking care of something outside of your immediate responsibility does not have to be wholly altruistic. Widening out an internally-focused water efficiency agenda can also tick other boxes, benefitting business as much as it does the environment.

One: supply chain risk

Consider statistics on embedded water in the context of the global economy and it soon becomes clear that when water-heavy products are produced in water-scarce locations there is a problem.

One of the fundamental differences between a water footprint and a carbon footprint is that a water footprint must assess the impact on the local water environment. This means that the same product made in South Africa or Spain would have a different water footprint. To ensure that water footprints are comparable and carried out to a recognised methodology, the first international standard for water footprinting was published in 2014 (ISO 14046). Using this method, water footprints are undertaken using a risk assessment-type methodology.

While this undoubtedly sounds like a difficult and time-consuming process it can be carried out at whatever level is beneficial to the business. For example, grain is imported from two suppliers, one in South Africa and one in Spain. Both countries irrigate crops and this puts pressure on regional water supplies. The water footprint could review the water bills of the different suppliers or the number of days that water was pumped for irrigation. Having determined the highest risk, informed management decisions can be made and appropriate mitigation measures can be put in place. The 80:20 rule is a useful tool here — focusing efforts on areas where you have a clear impact will be more beneficial than a detailed analysis.

Two: operations

The operational risks that an organisation faces from water will vary from business to business depending on its geography and type of operation.

Although water may be more of an issue abroad than it has historically been within the UK there are still risks to UK businesses that can threaten growth and impact on profit margins.

For example, the risk of damage to assets from flooding remains a real threat, as does water scarcity, where even in the UK the availability of water resources has the potential to limit growth. Furthermore, pollution of water resources can offer another raft of problems from regulatory and reputational damage following a pollution incident to more practical long-term considerations such as the availability of clean water to support business needs.

The CDP’s 2017 Global Water Report showed that 70% of the largest publicly-listed companies had board level oversight of water issues. These companies identified water scarcity and flooding as their top two risks with higher operating costs being the main concern.

Three: water efficiency

With a spotlight on water, adopting a water stewardship programme can give any efficiency programme a real boost. Not only will it put water in front of high-level decision makers and budget holders, it will also provide an opportunity for water to be included in wider company policies, helping link in with other corporate initiatives.

This can only be a positive thing for efforts towards careful water use. First, a wider awareness of any pressures on water resources and risks due to water scarcity will act as a driver for getting financial support for internal efforts. Second, it gives more weight to any proposed initiatives as getting your own house in order is critical before looking outwards to your supply chain.

What’s the impact on those with facilities and environment responsibilities?

For facilities and environment managers, being involved in water stewardship has a number of advantages. As described, it can help manage risks to assets, help understand supply chain pressures as well as promote facilities-led initiatives such as water conservation. These aspects of running the business are very real risks to facilities professionals as much as they are other parts of the organisation.

Water stewardship can cast a wide net and so it is also incredibly useful to be involved in any early discussions around stewardship. The recent Government announcement to adopt a plastic-free office policy is one example of where efforts to be a better steward of water could spill over into facilities-run contracts such as catering and waste collection.

Where to start?

To get more information on how to adopt water stewardship, the WWF’s report From Risk to Resilience outlines five steps companies need to take to adopt a water steward approach.

  1. Understanding of the global challenges to water risks and how they impact on the business.

  2. Understanding the impact the operation has on water resources — both internally and within the supply chain.

  3. Internal action to improve efficiencies, how water is governed and to reduce pollution.

  4. Working together with other companies, NGOs and government bodies in a catchment to take collective action to address the issues.

  5. Influencing others — both peers within the industry and wider policy at a catchment and national scale.

To conclude

Water stewardship means understanding how the company uses water in a wider context, including water use in the supply chain as well as taking an active role in how water is managed in a whole river catchment.

Water stewardship has a direct impact on the role of a facilities or environment manager and can strengthen programmes they already manage, such as water efficiency improvements.

Furthermore, becoming a good water steward can be beneficial by:

  • helping understand risks in the supply chain

  • mitigating against direct risks to operations

  • reinvigorating water efficiency efforts.