Celebrate World Water Day By Committing to Water Stewardship
The United Nations established World Water Day in 1993 in order to have a dedicated, internationally recognized, and recurrent occasion to celebrate the importance of water. This celebration aims to embrace and highlight the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Agenda for 2030, in particular the goal of availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
The observation of World Water Day on March 22nd is an important yearly milestone as governments and industries work to improve water stewardship efforts across the globe. This is a day to reflect on progress, look ahead to next steps, and relearn the importance of water in the context of an evolving climate crisis.
The following is a high-level overview of the importance and urgency of global water sustainability efforts. We hope it helps guide your organization as you develop your own water stewardship protocols.
Water Is a Regional Resource
“In the past we were told that water was unlimited. There are still a lot of people with this perception. With the effects of global climate change, we are seeing regions that had never before faced drought start to confront water scarcity. We need World Water Day so people can relearn the importance of water.”
– Tatiana Fernandes, Manager, Antea Group, Brasil
For a lot of the world, water is sourced from the ground and is seemingly replenished from the sky in the form of rain or snow. It appears to be a rather straightforward cycle–one that occurs naturally with or without our notice.
The water cycle, however, often spans a far greater distance than people imagine. While it’s true that water in the form of precipitation falls from the sky to the ground, that water doesn’t always remain where it lands.
Landscape features that channel rainfall and snowmelt from their origination to an outflow point are known as watersheds or drainage basins. A watershed consists of any number of water features such as creeks, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. The outflow point of a watershed is simply a common outlet for the flow of water such as a lake, bay, or ocean.
It is important to understand the distance water travels in order to fully comprehend why actions in one location can have a serious impact on water cleanliness and availability in another.
Interruptions in the watershed, such as human-constructed reservoirs, may limit the amount of water available as a resource to communities downstream. The same is true for pollutants. When water is contaminated due to surface runoff or spills in one location, rainfall often washes those pollutants into a common water source and affects water quality for miles downstream.
The single most important concept for government and industries to understand as they are crafting water stewardship strategies is that water is a regional resource.
Climate Change, Weather, and Water
We rely on our understanding of a region’s climate to predict how much water is replenished through rainfall and snowmelt.
Climate change is already impacting weather patterns, leading to a disparity in water resources across the globe. Extreme weather events are striking and stalling out over regions, leading to some areas receiving little to no rainfall in what is supposed to be their rainy season, while others are deluged with unprecedented precipitation.
The year of 2021 was devastating in terms of extreme weather events. After extended periods of droughts, fires broke out across nearly every continent. Flooding occurred across Europe, causing around $5 billion in economic damages. These climate-influenced changes in weather patterns are expected to continue as the global temperatures rise.
Stakeholders in Water Sustainability
“The human relationship with water goes beyond access to potable water and sanitation. Water holds cultural and religious significance for people all over the world. It is celebrated in songs, dances, and rituals, because we all understand–as a civilization–that water is important to our survival.”
– Janaína Da Silva, Project Coordinator, Antea Group, Brasil
Due to our existential dependence on daily access to water, everyone on the planet is a stakeholder in sustainable water management. Some organizational units, such as governments and large industries, have an outsized influence on the cleanliness and accessibility of water.
The UN has determined that access to water is a human right. According to their Sustainable Development Goals report, 2 billion people lack safe drinking water, with 2.3 billion people living in water-stressed countries. Water is necessary for personal health through consumption, hygiene, and sanitation.
Domestic sources of water include personal access from wells and rain catchment systems, communal access from common wells, lakes, and streams, and government-managed sources like public works water distribution.
These domestic water sources can be impacted by population growth, drought, and upstream diversion or release of water. Local industries also have an impact on the quantity and quality of water available to the community.
Industry is a vital part of our modern human experience, and water usage is a necessary part of industry. Water is used for dust control in manufacturing, cooling in data centers, irrigation in agriculture, and as an ingredient in countless products.
According to a 2020 McKinsey report, Water: A human and business priority, the water crisis will affect businesses in four distinct ways:
- Physical: accessibility of clean and plentiful water may change drastically, meaning locations might no longer be suitable for a plant or work campus.
- Regulatory: as water scarcity increases, regulations on water usage will likely follow to ensure equitable access to resources.
- Reputational: the public’s perception of an organization’s role in water scarcity–accurate or not–has a significant impact.
- Stakeholder: investors are already weighing water scarcity risk when deciding to financially back organizations.
A Roadmap for Water Stewardship
“Water stewardship is taking water management to another level. Water is a shared resource with shared risks. Stewardship requires being committed to the social and cultural interests of all stakeholders. By talking to your stakeholders when developing your stewardship plan, you ensure you aren’t missing any risks.”
– Beatrice Bizzaro, Sustainability Specialist/Alliance for Water Stewardship Specialist, HPC Italy
With this understanding of water as a regional resource and the business risks associated with water scarcity, the next step is to start crafting your organization’s water stewardship strategy.
Stewardship is the care and maintenance of something that doesn’t belong to you. A watershed region is the shared responsibility of a great many stakeholders. Partnering with other organizations and local governments is vital to effecting real change and creating long-term values related to resource resilience.
The Alliance for Water Stewardship has outlined five key steps for a successful strategy. The following are an overview of the steps; the full report goes into greater detail.
1. Gather and understand
Gathering data on water quality and usage from every location within a watershed is important for painting a clear picture of how major stakeholders are impacting the water supply–in both positive and negative ways.
This should be a thorough undertaking to capture as much baseline information as possible, so your organization and water sustainability partners can fully understand the challenges faced within your watershed.
2. Commit and plan
The commitment to water sustainability is more than an ethical one. It requires committing both financial and human resources to the task. Once these are secured, the planning stage can begin.
Using the data gathered and in coordination with your sustainability partners, develop a plan that addresses your organization’s water usage at a site, local, regional, and watershed level.
A thorough water stewardship program will cover a range of targets from regulatory compliance to direct and indirect water usage management. Implementing these plans in stages that have a cascading positive impact is a great way to maximize your efforts.
Regular monitoring is key to using the resources committed to this endeavor efficiently. Make adjustments as needed based on how successful your actions are at minimizing impact and enabling sustainable water systems.
5. Communicate and disclose
Transparency around your water stewardship efforts is important for several reasons. It offers guidance and encouragement to your sustainability partners. It lets the public know that you are taking action on an issue that is of great concern worldwide. Finally, it places your organization in a position to be a leader in water stewardship and inspires others to follow your lead.
Water Stewardship Is a Necessary Part of Business
World Water Day is not a beginning or an end to the water conversation. It is a checkpoint for individuals, governments, and businesses to assess their role in the conservation of our most vital natural resource.