New study finds an uneven application of the concept of a globally agreed approach to water stewardship is holding back progress

A globally agreed approach to water stewardship could contribute significantly to improved water security, benefiting people and planet, in light of population growth and the changing climate placing more strain on the environment and impacting water supplies. Yet an uneven application of the concept is holding back progress, a new study has found.

Research commissioned by BSI of the National Centre for Social Research identifies that international collaboration and standardized guidelines offer the opportunity to bring harmonization and enable scaled-up action on this pressing issue. The authors suggest a foundation of best practice has been built for corporate water action, with a diverse landscape of voluntary initiatives actively supporting to improve local water conditions. However globally agreed guidelines could bring clarity and consensus for acting on water security, increasing transparency in target-setting, measuring and reporting, and helping to scale action.

In particular, standardization could better drive corporate action on water stewardship at the enterprise level (business-wide) by providing a model of good practice to allow for a verified mechanism to make claims. They also find that scaling up in this way could make taking action more accessible for small to medium sized enterprises, which currently lack the capacity, capability, and investment to understand or implement water stewardship.

Although many countries have local regulation in place and increased regulation is being proposed both in the EU and the UK, there is no internationally-applicable regulation governing water strategy and reporting[i], contributing to a lack of consistency between how different organizations manage concerns around local water quantity in their operations and contribute to water quality issues, for example around approach to wastewater and use of pollutants,

Water stewardship can offer organizations a route to manage concerns collectively. As the report sets out, an important task of any new standardization effort will be to clarify what ‘success’ looks like and provide meaningful, tailored guidance that can be applied across different cultural traditions, language and business sizes. It could support consensus on key ideas and terminology such as ‘net-positive water impact’ and ‘replenishment’ and codify and align approaches to target-setting and metrics, therefore bringing greater transparency to water stewardship performance.

The report uses a definition of water stewardship[ii] as “the use of water that is socially and culturally equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial”. As the research shows, building a foundational understanding of the concept is critical to driving collaborative action.

Prior BSI research, Thirst for Change, highlighted that tackling water scarcity should be as much a priority as climate change, noting that without action, by 2050, 75% of the world’s population could be facing drought. That report, in partnership with the NGO Waterwise, called for a circular economy mindset to support water security. The campaign identifies that using water we have efficiently can reduce the need for freshwater abstraction, whilst also reducing carbon emissions.

According to BSI polling, two-thirds of consumers and 80% of small business leaders identify clean water and sanitation as ‘part of sustainability’, while half of the former, and 44% of the latter, place it in the top five issues to focus global resource and effort on.

Jonathan Chocqueel-Mangan, Chief Strategy and Transformation Officer at BSI said: Water stewardship, powered by international collaboration, provides a route for all to accelerate progress towards a sustainable world. This is a key priority for BSI in all our work, so we are delighted to support this research.

“Given the urgent global nature of both climate change and water crises, now is the moment to collaborate so individuals, organizations and society better understand and take responsibility for their impact on water quality and quantity through advancing commitments to practice good water stewardship. Globally agreed guidelines could bring clarity and consensus to turn ambition into action on this pressing issue and a be a critical factor in enabling a water secure future.”

Bernard Steen, Research Director, National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), said: “We were pleased to partner with BSI on this important research. The findings highlighted both opportunities and challenges for the standardisation of water stewardship. For example, a new standard could help drive progress by applying to whole companies, rather than individual sites. But because water is an intrinsically local resource, unlike carbon, balancing the micro and the macro will not be straightforward. A new standard could also help to embed meaningful engagement with local communities in the everyday operations of companies. A new global standard has the potential to accelerate progress, if implemented sensitively and carefully.”

Will Sarni, CEO of Water Foundry Ventures said: “Water is a finite resource crucial for ecosystem health, social well-being, business growth and economic development.  In recognition of its paramount importance, Water Foundry has partnered with BSI to explore establishing an international standard for corporate water stewardship which builds upon current initiatives. As a global leader in water strategy, we believe there is an opportunity to align frameworks to facilitate adoption and scaling of corporate water stewardship strategies and accelerate innovative solutions.

“Water scarcity, pollution, and inequitable distribution pose significant challenges to communities, industries, and ecosystems worldwide. In response to these pressing issues, Water Foundry is excited to collaborate on this important action to begin the process of defining a comprehensive international standard for water stewardship. Such a standard would provide a common language and set of guidelines for organizations across diverse sectors to drive value globally.”

[i] Currently, impacts are governed by national legislation, regulations and guidelines, for example the Water Framework Directive in Europe and the Clean Water Act in the United States

[ii] Alliance for Water Stewardship – The AWS is a global collaboration of leading non-governmental organisations and multilateral agencies on sustainable water management, which produced the widely recognised site-level standard on water stewardship.

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