Finding hope in water risk

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For those of us who work on water, yesterday was a big day. The World Economic Forum released the results of its 2015 global risk survey, and guess what tops the list for potential impact? Water crises.

In a perverse way, I greeted this news with enthusiasm. And I wasn’t alone. My network of water colleagues took to their blogs and Twitter, CEOs weighed in, water captured headlines. Finally! If nearly 900 experts collectively identified water as the risk with greatest potential impact, then 2015 promises to be a year of unprecedented action to improve water management.

That’s the hope, anyway.

But I work on water every day, so I have to take yesterday’s big news with a grain of salt. While many in the private sector talk a good game on water, few have truly internalized their water dependence and risk. I see too many responses that look more like gimmicks than strategy, and across the board too many companies are still sitting on the sidelines, as if to say, “Water is still flowing out of the tap today, so we’ll take action tomorrow.”

Farmer in drought-striken field, Shanxi, China. © Global Warming ImagesFarmer in drought-striken field, Shanxi, China. © Global Warming Images

Of course, when the well has run dry, it’s too late to come up with a water strategy. It’s too late to ask which other companies have facilities in this river basin. It’s too late to be an advocate for better policy and an ally for the agencies that are responsible for water delivery. When the crisis comes, the unprepared will have shuttered facilities, shattered supply chains, stranded assets and sullied brands.

OK, so that’s depressing. How about we get back to the part where I’m enthusiastic? I was pleased to see that among the broad categories of risk WEF reported on – economic, environmental, societal, geopolitical and technological – water is considered a societal issue rather than an environmental one. That demonstrates recognition of the fact that water flows through our societies and economies, touching all aspects of our lives. Averting a water crisis cannot be left to the ministry of environment or green NGOs.

I take this year’s risk survey as a sign that the wakeup call has been heard. Will it be answered? That’s the hope. If you’re reading this and wondering where to start, here are some ideas:

1) Understand your water risks, not just your footprint
2) This is a journey: plan accordingly
3) Take your time to get this right – engage, ask questions, learn
4) Avoid gimmicks and “quick wins” – they’re just a waste of time

If enough companies take steps like these, I believe “water crises” will lose its place at the top of the risk list. Not because we’ll have it all figured out, but because we will collectively feel more confident in our ability to weather the storm while meeting the needs of people and nature.

Stuart Orr is Head of Water Stewardship, WWF International

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