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Water and climate change: Why should businesses take the lead?

Climate change seems to be all the buzz lately. The term is used in all manner of speech and documentation. Policy papers, strategic plans and government pronouncements incorporate this buzz phrase.

For business it is evident that climate change will impact operations and the bottom line, but it is not always clear how best business can proactively mitigate risks and adapt to climate change and do what they can to ensure they build resilience. 

Over the last 15 years, the World Economic Forum has released a global risks report which highlights different risks to the global economy such as the environment, public health, geo-politics and technology. For the first time in the history of this report, 2020 is the year that environmental factors were ranked as the top five risks that are most likely to occur. The environmental factors include: climate change inaction, biodiversity loss, extreme weather and water crises. Water related risks such as poor quality, insufficient quantity, floods and droughts, have been in the top 5 environmental risks for 10 consecutive years, calling for urgent action. 

© Jasper Doest/ WWF
A dried up fishing pan in the Barotse floodplain. In 2019, the floodplain experienced what was said to be the worst drought in 20 years.

This macro scale assessment might seem far removed from our reality here in Zambia but over the last 5 years we have experienced first-hand, the impacts of changes in water quality and quantity on the bottom line of business and the national economy; from issues such as hydro-electric power shortages, to cholera outbreaks and now access to water in the wake of COVID-19. Increasingly, businesses of all sizes are feeling the different physical, regulatory, and reputational risks associated with limited involvement in water resources management and they can no-longer sit by the sidelines in the hopes that internal action will be sufficient.

Now more than ever, private sector actors need to compliment the work of mandated government institutions to ensure that they are not only responsible users of the water resource, but that they are positively engaging with governments and other water users regarding improved management and governance. Water Stewardship creates the ideal framework for this sort of thought leadership.  

© Ogilvy Zambia/WWF
A center pivot irrigation system at a commercial farm in Zambia. Private sector need to compliment the work of mandated government institutions to ensure that they are responsible users of water.

Defined - water stewardship is the use of water that is socially and culturally equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial. It can be achieved through a stakeholder-inclusive process that includes actions at factory level or at river catchment level. By engaging in water stewardship, businesses actively address different water related risks to their operations by getting involved in the management of water resources beyond their fence line. An example of improved stewardship in practice would be a business with operations close to a river, collaborating with another factory that is operating within the same catchment to work on improving water quality issues that are negatively affecting other water users. This engagement of businesses beyond their fence lines to address shared risks is what encapsulates water stewardship practice. Of course, this is a gross simplification of the complex issues associated with genuine water stewardship but the concept remains the same - genuine collaboration with other stakeholders towards a shared vision of improved management of water.

It is against this background that WWF Zambia in partnership with selected businesses, has been working on building better water stewards. This collaboration began in 2015 when innovative private sector firms such as Zambian Breweries, Zambia Sugar PLC, Zambeef PLC and government rallied together in order to identify the shared opportunities and risks associated with operating or having supply chains in the Lower Kafue sub-basin. The choice of sub-basin, premised in the fact that the Kafue River and its broader watershed is the economic engine of Zambia. This collective constituted the first water stewardship driven multi-stakeholder platform called the Kafue Flats Joint Action Group (KFJAG). The KFJAG agreed upon addressing specific risks in the landscape and leveraging opportunities that would not compromise the resilience of the landscape. This collective does not assume the role of mandated public sector players, rather, it complements the work of these by engaging in actions that support improved management such as data collection, ensuring sustainable projects are undertaken and adhering to mandated processes for catchment development. These companies build on their respective responsible business practices and then take extraordinary steps to respond to the identified water risks to, and impacts of their operations on catchments and communities. There are a number of principles to take cognisance of when the private sector begins to engage in the management of a public good such as water and this collective has taken on the challenge of shifting the paradigm from one of lobbying and opposition to cooperation and partnership. 

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Chanda is the Water Stewardship Manager at WWF Zambia