Chris Brown: A Cup Half Full: Collaborating for Water Security

By Chris Brown, Vice-President for Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability, Olam International

Water is something most of us take for granted. We turn on the tap and it flows. We buy it in bottles. We use it to grow gardens and irrigate food crops. Yet it’s amongst the most precious natural capital on earth. But after decades of deliberation on policy and talk of collaboration, making a real impact on alleviating the calls on this valuable natural resource remains elusive.

As a resource, water is incredibly challenging to measure, monitor or mediate. By the very nature of its sources of supply, water cannot be neatly ring-fenced along administrative or geographical boundaries and everyone is vested in it – with interconnected and often competing interests. Yet water scarcity affects more than 40 percent of the global population[1], and at least 1.8 billion people globally use a source of drinking water that is fecally contaminated[2]. Increasing population in emerging economies with changing diets and consumer demands could even create conflict between water users unless there is improved data, planning, practices and governance.  Equally, nations could severely impact their long-term water sustainability by not adequately valuing water and understanding their dependencies on the export of water intensive crops.

Agriculture is the largest draw on water, consuming 70 percent of all freshwater resources[3]. So for large agri-businesses such as Olam, water security is also a business imperative. Fortunately, agriculture and the food supply chain also has the greatest potential to make meaningful adjustments in water management practices and companies like ours must step up to the challenge.  There are many examples of innovative conservation strategies – for example, PepsiCo’s decision[4] to use the water from within their potatoes to meet the freshwater needs of their Walkers/Lays crisp manufacturing plant.

While conserving water within operations is one aspect, action cannot stop there. The private sector must look beyond the farm or factory fence to see who else is dependent upon the same resource. Organisations like the Alliance for Water Stewardship can offer good frameworks and support. Our experience with the Aviv coffee plantation in Tanzania has shown that collaboration is essential.  But it’s not easy.  It requires significant time and resources: to understand the details behind the science, to balance various interests, to design the right initiatives that meet everyone’s needs. It also means gaining trust from smallholders to NGOs to other companies and in the case of Aviv – a convent who also run the local hydro-power plant. This trust cannot be won overnight, particularly as a corporate operating in isolated rural areas where the broader understanding of the water catchment area issues is limited.

Amid a multitude of sectors, we hope that agriculture can be a proof point - and a benchmark - for how policy and action can intersect to catalyse greater momentum. Benjamin Franklin said, “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.” We know that we and others must act before the world reaches that point.

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