In the 27th edition of InContext we presented the water footprint concept, its distinct components, and some initial experiences to show how projects with social impact can serve to compensate (in a non-technical sense) water usage by private corporations. We now present a refined view of the concept which offers us a more complex and at the same time more promising outlook on the win-win potential of water footprints for corporations, communities and consumers.
As the expert Ana Carolina Herrero notes, “the concept of Water Footprinting makes it possible to account for the use of “hidden water” along the production line of goods or consumer services, providing information about the effects on water as they relate to lifestyles of people, populations, unions, producers or corporations. This multidimensional indicator shows water usage according to its origin as well as the volume of water required to offset the pollution generated. The components of the Water Footprint are explicit, both geographically and temporally.”
Fighting for the slow and growing integration on the part of corporations of water footprinting as a management tool, Herrero lists its advantages: “Water Footprinting is a more useful tool for the management of water than traditional methods because it:
She also adds a fundamental consideration for corporations: “proper water management has become a critical element in terms of the reputation and viability of business”, and water footprinting addresses the challenge of “identifying, recognizing and evaluating the probable risks, which include economic losses due to damages caused by extreme weather, resource overuse, operation reduction and/or loss of trust in the investment, among others”. It also serves to neutralize social conflicts caused by mismanagement both of water’s productive use and -when it exists, in the context of CSR- of attempts to return water to the basin through social projects. When corporations are rejected or opposed by the communities in which they operate, difficulties and challenges multiply and rapidly become more complex, risking the entire initiative (see InContext 43).
We’ve mentioned the water footprint and CSR, but to date they are not strongly interrelated. CSR as relates to water seems to rest, in most cases but with some notable exceptions, on isolated proposals that are disconnected from the productive profile of the corporation. Corporations seem to follow a traditional concept of CSR as corporate philanthropy, which makes it very difficult to change corporate culture regarding water as a resource. This approach also has very limited potential in terms of reversing negative perceptions held by involved citizens or convincing them that corporate activity is not limited to extracting and profiting.
On the other hand, corporate practices that seek to strictly measure, reduce and ultimately neutralize water footprints represent a very important step toward establishing a different commitment to the community. This is because they end up generating, in the best of cases, a neutral impact on the basin from which water is taken: the amount of water required by the production process is returned (measured and certified) and at the same time corporate water consumption is reduced through improved practices (also measured and certified). As important as it is from a social perspective for corporations to take on this necessary (and not yet obligatory) proactive approach to measuring, reducing and neutralizing their footprints, it is also good for business in terms of ensuring the environmental conditions necessary for the enterprise to continue to prosper. In other words: neutralizing the water footprint is a part of the business, and this explains the fundamental motivation to take it on. It reduces environmental impact, reduces costs, and ensures production sources for the long term.
Social Inclusion Tool
Based on its program experience, Fundación Avina proposes an approach for integrating water footprinting as part of Corpo rate Social Responsibility (CSR), but with specific additional objectives: as a means of contributing to the logic of triple results (economic, environmental and social); making water a basic human right ensuring equality of opportunity; and providing a endogenous and exogenous view of watersheds themselves. We refer to this as Water Responsibility.
Water Responsibility is considered a progressive continuum, which ranges from lesser to greater degrees of environmental and social involvement. The process can originate with simple actions anchored in a traditional philanthropic philosophy and progress step by step toward profound social responsibility which is both sustainable and inclusive when it comes to water issues. Water Responsibility is attained when water footprint management and philanthropic intent are united, and actions cease to be isolated events but rather become integrated into a sustainable corporate policy, which conceives its responsibility in a much broader sense.
Water Responsibility can be visualized in the following way:
Communal water solutions, present in steps 1, 4 and 5, are reflected in projects implemented by Community Owned Water Supply Organizations (COWSOs), such as co-ops, water boards, safe drinking water committees, as well as non-governmental organizations specialized in conservation projects, water access, rain water collection, or water quality improvement.
An additional aspect of concern to corporations wanting to adopt a sustainable focus on water responsibility is the decision to participate in analysis, debates and proposals regarding the watershed itself, where topics related to the democratic and transparent governing of basins as well as related human and natural pressures are discussed.
Just when evidence is accumulating in Latin America regarding negative water balances, some megacities separated by thousands of kilometers are already feeling the impact of poor inter-territorial planning (see InContext 61). It has become common to hear social groups protesting the fact that water for human consumption is not being prioritized. All the conditions, experiences and tools exist such that a gradual focus on corporate water responsibility can translate into a multiplication of water solutions that complement government efforts to attain the universal coverage stated in Objective #6 of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Private Water Footprint and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
The private Water Footprint has the capacity to directly affect goals 3, 4 and 6 of Goal number 6 of the SDGs.
Ana Carolina Herrero “Huella Hídrica, compensación y empresas” (Water Footprinting, Compensation and Corporations), consultancy report prepared for Fundación Avina, Buenos Aires, March 2015
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