Water Stewardship in the Private Sector

21 December 2021 - // Interviews
Will Sarni
CEO, Water Foundry.

Will Sarni is an internationally-recognized thought leader on water strategy and innovation with a reputation of pressuring businesses to care more about water. He has been a sustainability and water advisor to multinationals, technology companies, investors and NGOs and a former Water Strategy Director at Deloitte. REVOLVE spoke with him to learn more about water scarcity.

What are the greatest water stewardship achievements of the private sector?

The greatest progress has been in the private sector moving from water management to water stewardship and for some companies a water strategy (the progression is illustrated below). Companies that have developed and implemented water stewardship strategies have engaged with stakeholders across their value chain to manage water risks and, to the extent feasible, secure a social license to operate. Some companies have built upon their water stewardship strategy and added initiatives in innovation – technology, new products and services, investment, and partnerships (e.g. ABInBev and PepsiCo).

What are the biggest water stewardship failings of the private sector? The opportunities for the private sector in addressing water risks and having a positive impact on solving ‘wicked water problems’ include engaging with a broader group of stakeholders (such as entrepreneurs and investors) to tap into their unique attributes such as speed and focus.

In addition, the private sector has primarily been focused on water footprint strategies (think: volumetric goals) instead of a ‘handprint’ strategy that quantifies the impact of the company’s activities in products, services and workforce. My view is that while footprint strategies have some value, they ignore the greater value a company delivers through leveraging what they do best. The private sector can also be bogged down by engagement with too many pledges, commitments, and organizations. Perhaps doing few things better and at scale would move us closer to solving these water problems.

You have a particular interest in the southwest USA where you founded the Colorado River Basin Fund for innovative water technologies to address the basin’s serious water scarcity. Apart from climate change, what are the most important factors contributing to the region’s water scarcity?

There are three primary factors driving water scarcity in the Colorado River Basin and the American West: Outdated public policy, overallocation of water resources, and aging and underfunded infrastructure. These factors are exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. It is essentially the status quo colliding with the reality of climate change.

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 is the key law that defines the ‘Law of the River’ for the watershed. At the time the Compact was negotiated by the seven Colorado River Basin states and the federal government it was an exceptionally wet period. As a result, allocations were made during a period not reflecting actual average precipitation and availability of surface water. In hindsight there was a greater allocation of water than availability within the upper and lower basins of the Colorado.

Moreover, public policies and regulations have not kept pace with the reality of rapid population growth and urbanization within the region. Cities such as Denver, Salt Lake City and Phoenix have grown rapidly since 1922 and increased demand for scarce surface water supplies. The decrease in available surface water has led to increased pumping of groundwater, further straining available water resources within the region.

The existing water infrastructure is aging and underfunded, which makes it ill-equipped to deal with population growth, declining precipitation within the region and the impacts of climate change. What is needed is vastly increased investment in the right water infrastructure which is more sustainable and resilient (think: smart precision agriculture, decentralized treatment systems and water reuse). The American West is also experiencing aridification, which is a long-term shift to a dryer climate with significant implications in vastly reduced surface water supplies. We need to stop referring to this as a drought – the layperson interprets a drought as short-term with less urgency and therefore sees no need to change behavior.

Given that reducing GHG emissions cannot have immediate impact, what are the most urgent actions required to alleviate the Colorado water crisis?

The priorities to address current water scarcity within the watershed and the need for a more sustainable and resilient water infrastructure are:

  • Changes in public policies to mandate water reuse and conservation;
  • Increased funding of innovative water technologies and commercialization;
  • Investment in smart precision agriculture including things like drought tolerant crops and precision irrigation

The view that the current conditions are a ‘drought’ and not a long term aridification of the region jeopardizes economic development, business growth, social well-being (access to safe drinking water) and ecosystem health. What is your message to water stewards around the world?

There is much discussion on what needs to change to address water scarcity, poor quality, lack of access to safe drinking water and the impacts of climate change like extreme weather events and flooding. We must start by improving how we engage with civil society on the value of water. Water services come at a cost, and the notion that water should be inexpensive masks the real cost of infrastructure to deliver access to safe drinking water, protect ecosystems, support business growth and economic development. We can ensure the human right to water while also adopting policies that value water through market mechanisms such as proper pricing to drive conservation and reuse. Finally, we should view water as an opportunity for collaboration and not conflict – water is the ‘glue in humanity.’ Virtually every one of us needs it and cannot live without.

Will Sarni
CEO, Water Foundry.

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