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At the World Economic Forum in Davos two weeks ago, I was struck by how often the issue of water risk was raised by business executives. As the global economic turmoil is receding, many CEOs and global leaders are turning to other threats—and water is high on the list. For the second year in a row, water crises were named among the top four global risks at the WEF.

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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.

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Sarah Cohen, an intern with WRI's Markets and Enterprise Program, also contributed to this blog post.

Do you have colleagues who roll their eyes when they hear the words “environment” or “sustainability?” The sad truth is that environmental issues are not always a passion for everyone at every organization. However, climate change and other environmental challenges are shaping tomorrow’s markets—so how do you draw connections between sustainability and business value for those who may not see it right away?

Today, WRI is releasing a guide to address this question and many more related to corporate sustainability. The guide—which was road-tested this summer by a dozen major companies like Target, Method, and Staples—adds a sustainability component to the traditional Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) analysis that corporations have relied on for more than 50 years. Our sustainability SWOT, or “sSWOT,” is designed to help corporate sustainability champions engage colleagues, customers, suppliers, and even competitors to identify links to business risks and brainstorm new business opportunities.

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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.

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Even in the absence of an international framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, several countries, states, and provinces are developing and implementing climate policies. A growing number of these policies include market-based programs, some of which aim to link to each other through regional and global carbon markets. Countries like the United States can learn a lot from the economic and political experiences of these climate policy “first movers.”

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“To tell the story of the corporation is to tell the story of a grand bargain gone awry,” says Pavan Sukhdev in his new book, Corporation 2020: Transforming Business for Tomorrow’s World. It’s a bold statement, but he backs up his claim persuasively. While many companies are reaching record profits, they’ve oftentimes come at the expense of ecological degradation, rising greenhouse gas emissions, unemployment, spikes in food and fuel costs, and social inequalities.

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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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Companies are increasingly feeling the financial impacts of water risks like shortages and pollution. Ceres’ most recent report, Clearing the Waters, highlights the fact that companies are falling short on identifying key areas where their operations are exposed to physical water risks. Mitigating these threats, then, requires doing more to assess, disclose, and address them.

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As much of the United States continues to suffer through what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has called the country’s most extensive drought in more than 50 years, there is growing concern over how broad and severe the impacts may be. Events like this drought—which are projected to become increasingly common should climate change continue unabated—provide a sharp reminder of how heavily communities and global economies rely on water.

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With its high reliance on manufacturing, mining, and agriculture, South Africa’s economy runs on fresh water. Recent projections estimate a startling 17 percent gap between water demand and supply in the country by 2030. Even more concerning, the areas most affected, the Gauteng and Vaal River regions, are also the most economically significant: According to the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, these two areas produce more than 50 percent of South Africa's wealth and supply more than 80 percent of the country's electricity requirements (more than 50 percent of all the electricity generated in Africa).

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