Water Water Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink

The title of today’s show, which quotes Samuel Coleridge in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, aptly describes the dilemma companies are starting to face when it comes to water management.  Today, we speak with Jeff Erikson of SustainAbility, a think tank that recently surveyed experts globally on corporate impacts on water, and Cameron Brooks of IBM’s Big Green Innovations team, which has been focusing on “Smarter Water Management.”

Water has been climbing up the corporate agenda as the next big sustainability issue, on par with climate change.  And companies are adopting increasingly sophisticated tools for managing water sustainably.  Examples include the  Corporate Water Gauge from the Center for Sustainable Innovation in Vermont, the Global Water Tool from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and launched just this spring, the Water Risk Index from GE, Goldman Sachs, and the World Resources Institute.  And I recently edited a report from Ceres on corporate disclosure of water risks.

Water was recently identified as the most important sustainability issue for companies, followed by climate change, poverty, and biodiversity.  This was the finding of the 2009 Sustainability Survey, a joint project between GlobeScan and SustainAbility, the UK-based think tank and consultancy.  So this year, the two groups followed up with a “pulse” survey focused specifically on water, which polled over 1200 sustainability experts in 80 countries.  Sea Change Executive Director Bill Baue spoke with Jeff Erikson, senior vice president of SustainAbility, who worked on the project — and also worked together with Baue in 2007 on the first-ever Walmart Sustainability Report.

Erikson discussed the Sustainability Survey findings, first and foremost that “experts have a strong preference for policy measures that reduce water demand over those that increase water supply.”  The survey also found that “managing fresh water sustainably and equitably requires a multi-faceted approach,” listing about a dozen strategies with more than 70 percent support from experts.  Interestingly, only 16 percent of sustainability experts thought privatization is a good solution, and 55 percent opposed it.

This aligns with the growing sense that water is a basic human right, according to Erikson — an opinion validated by the recent decision by Intel to explicitly confirm the human right to water.  Erikson also discusses the key role of “water footprinting” across entire product lifecycles to provide complete sustainability context.   Erikson closes citing the example of Coca-Cola’s best practices in water management, including its partnership with WWF. (Erikson disclosed that SustainAbility works with Coca-Cola, but not on these water issues.)

Next, Baue speaks with Cameron Brooks, Director of Solutions and Business Development for the Big Green Innovations Group at IBM. Dr. Brooks was the keynote speaker at the 7th Annual Water Resources Research Center Conference hosted by The Environmental Institute at the University of Massachusetts. The conference was happening right next to the WMUA studios where we produce Sea Change, so Baue invited Dr. Brooks in for a chat.

The conversation started with Dr. Brooks explaining how the Big Green Innovations initiative grew out of IBM’s Global Innovation Jam, a moderated online group chat and blog that crowdsources ideas from hundreds of thousands of participants.  Dr. Brooks pointed out that water has become an increasing focus for Big Green, resulting in the recent publication of the Global Innovations Outlook Water Report.  “Data drought” and “virtual water” are two of the concepts Dr. Brooks discusses from the report.  As well, he highlights IBM’s innovative work on water issues in Galway Bay, Ireland, and in its semiconductor manufacturing plant in Burlington, Vermont, which has saved $3 million annually from water conservation measures.