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Big Business and Sustainability: The Missing Links

This piece originally appeared on The Guardian's Sustainable Business website.

As another year begins, big business will continue falling well short of taking the leadership role on the sustainability the world urgently needs. While many chief executives now publicly identify sustainability as a key issue for their companies, walking the talk is proving more elusive.

Successful bosses do not procrastinate. So why are boardrooms dragging their feet as sustainability challenges that have an impact on the private sector mount? As an observer of business trends for two decades, I see two interlinked problems hindering progress: first, corporate failure to embed sustainability into core business strategy, treating it instead as a standalone issue. And second, the lack of tools that allow corporations to make this leap in their day-to-day operations.

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A Critical Moment to Harness Green Infrastructure—Not Concrete—to Secure Clean Water

This post was co-written with James Mulligan, Executive Director at Green Community Ventures.

Natural ecosystems provide essential services for our communities. Forests and wetlands, for example, filter the water we drink, protect neighborhoods from floods and droughts, and shade aquatic habitat for fish populations.

While nature provides this “green infrastructure,” water utilities and other decision-makers often attempt to replicate these services with concrete-and-steel “gray infrastructure”—usually at a much greater cost. Particularly where the equivalent natural ecosystems are degraded, we build filtration plants to clean water, reservoirs to regulate water flow, and mechanical chillers to protect fish from increasing stream temperatures. And even though healthy ecosystems can reduce the operational costs of these structures, investing in restoring or enhancing various types of green infrastructure is rarely pursued—either as a substitute for or complement to gray infrastructure.

Despite America’s history of reliance on gray infrastructure, now is a critical time to tip the scales in favor of a green infrastructure approach to water-resource management. Investing in the conservation and improved management of natural ecosystems to secure and protect water systems can keep costs down and create jobs. Green infrastructure can also provide a suite of co-benefits for the air we breathe, the places we play, the wildlife we share our landscapes with, and the climate we live in.

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Entrepreneurs in Mexico City Turn Water Risk into Opportunity

This post was co-authored with Jose Carlos Lombana, co-founder of Sistemas de Captación de Agua Pluvial (SCAP).

This story is part of the “Aqueduct Sneak Peek” series. Aqueduct Sneak Peek provides an early look at how various stakeholders can use Aqueduct’s updated global water risk maps, which will be released in January 2013. Read more posts in this series.

A study by scientists at The Nature Conservancy and other institutions estimates that by 2050, more than 1 billion city dwellers may be living on less than one bathtub’s worth of water a day. While this and other water risks are undeniably troubling, they can be overcome in many cases. With the right data and innovation, entrepreneurs can turn these risks into business opportunities.

Rainwater Harvesting Solutions in Mexico City

Mexico City, the biggest metropolis in the Western hemisphere, faces significant water shortages, leaving many domestic, agricultural, and industrial users exposed to severe water-related risks. The city was built on the foundations of the Aztec capital, on the bed of Lake Texcoco. Today, centuries later, its groundwater supplies are rapidly diminishing, and it relies on a network of reservoirs and decaying infrastructure to pump in water from hundreds of miles away. Furthermore, urban growth and climate change are pushing Mexico City’s water supply to the edge. Reservoirs were dangerously low during the 2009 drought, leading the government to cut off water in some areas of the city.

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Influence of Coastal Economic Valuations in the Caribbean

Enabling Conditions and Lessons Learned

This paper assesses the policy influence of previous coastal ecosystem economic valuations in the Caribbean and identifies the key “enabling conditions” for valuations to influence policy, management, or investment decisions. These findings will inform WRI's and our partners’ efforts to...

A Closer Look at Aqueduct's Forthcoming Global Water Risk Maps

This story is part of the “Aqueduct Sneak Peek” series. Aqueduct Sneak Peek provides an early look at the Aqueduct team’s updated global water risk maps, which will be released in January 2013.

New reports and articles are increasingly pointing to water risk as one of the biggest issues associated with climate change, energy production, food security, and human health. In an effort to better understand how and where these water risks are emerging, WRI published the first-ever Aqueduct water risk map two years ago.

Today, the need for better information on where and how water can create risks for companies, investors, and communities is more apparent than ever. To address this need, the Aqueduct team has been working with our hydrological modeling partner, ISciences, on producing a brand new set of global maps of water risk.

We’ll make this new data available in January 2013. A few of the improvements and refinements that make these new Aqueduct global maps the best available picture of water risk around the world include:

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What We Don’t Know About Water Can Hurt Us

This story is part of the “Aqueduct Sneak Peek” series. Aqueduct Sneak Peek provides an early look at the Aqueduct team’s updated global water risk maps, which will be released in January 2013.

The days leading up to Hurricane Sandy’s landfall were a testament to the power of global data systems in helping to understand and manage risks that natural phenomena can create. A vast, worldwide network of weather monitoring stations and sophisticated remote sensing allowed meteorologists to track and predict Sandy’s progress—and give ample warning to those of us in the hurricane’s path.

The map below is one way to visualize the global data network that makes such analysis possible. It shows Integrated Surface Database (ISD) stations, a widely distributed network of weather stations that all report regularly to a centralized hub.

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Collaboration Trumps Competition for Developers of Water Risk and Stewardship Tools

This post is part of a series on World Water Week, an annual event designed to draw attention to and discuss global water issues. Read more posts in this series.

This piece was co-authored by Anne-Leonore Boffi, Program Officer with the WBCSD, and Ruth Mathews, Executive Director of the Water Footprint Network.

The unsustainable use of water and the risks it creates is on the minds of many of the thousands of water experts from the corporate, NGO, and government worlds who convened in Stockholm this week for World Water Week. As companies increasingly view water as not just an environmental issue, but a complex driver of very real risks to their businesses, the appetite for better information on how to manage these risks and become good water stewards has grown substantially. In fact, many organizations have put tremendous effort into developing tools and methodologies and compiling the best publicly available water information so that companies can manage their water use in sustainable, efficient, and equitable ways.

This week in Stockholm, teams from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), World Resources Institute (WRI), and Water Footprint Network (WFN) convened a seminar called “Towards Sustainability: Harmonising Water Tools for Better Water Governance”. The event focused on providing an overview of each tool and highlighting areas requiring better harmonization and coordination efforts to help drive companies towards better management and stewardship of water resources. The seminar also included Ceres, DEG (a German development finance institution), World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the UN CEO Water Mandate. The goal of the seminar was to explain how our organizations are striving to provide companies with a clear, easy-to- understand, and compatible set of water management tools—not a variety of competing efforts, but rather an organized and coordinated front.

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Tools to Improve Water Quality

This post is part of a series on World Water Week, an annual event designed to draw attention to and discuss global water issues. Read more posts in this series.

Agricultural production often comes at the expense of water quality. As my colleague, Mindy Selman, noted in a recent blog post, “Agriculture is the leading source of nutrient pollution in waterways—a situation that’s expected to worsen as the global population increases and the demand for food grows.”

But food security shouldn’t come at the expense of water quality—and in fact, it doesn’t have to. This is a topic I’m discussing at a World Water Week side event, “Securing Water Quality While Providing Food Security: The Nutrient Question.” Through the use of effective tools and strategies, we have the power to uphold water quality while still feeding a population that’s expected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

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Water Management Requires Global Perspective, Local Solutions

This post is part of a series on World Water Week, an annual event designed to draw attention to and discuss global water issues. Read more posts in this series.

This piece was co-authored by Stuart Orr, Freshwater Manager, WWF. It also appears on the WWF Freshwater Programme blog.

There is no shortage of troubling statistics to prove that water management is a global challenge. About 1.2 billion people currently face water scarcity, and a population expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050 will put increased strain on already pressured water supplies worldwide.

But while the water challenge is truly global, it also demands solutions that are tailored to local conditions. Availability, use, and quality of water vary dramatically from place to place.

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