Home Editor's Pick Why focussing on water makes business sense

Why focussing on water makes business sense

water drop

By Abhishek Chaturvedi and Dr. Vikas Goswami

Water is the most critical common property, a must for life on our planet. Since time immemorial, we have worshipped and hailed it as sacred. Perennial river valleys helped blossom our diverse cultures, complex societies, governance systems and civilisations.
But, like with everything else, we have crossed long ago the tipping point of exploiting our aquatic resources. We are drying up our ground waters rapidly, melting our glaciers far quickly and mindlessly polluting what we have—an act of collective self-destruction.
It’s World Environment Day, yet again. Can this be the single biggest turning point in the history of our times; can we do something miraculous to save our waters, and ourselves? It’s time to decide…
As trustees of this common property resource inherited from our ancestors, we need to converge and co-create some very serious, non-negotiable and sustainable solutions, so as to ensure that we pass on this resource to our children with utmost responsibility.
Of course, we aren’t the ones who started it all! ‘It was always burning, as the world was turning’! However, since the scientific and industrical revolution during the 18th century, scramble for colonies, mass production of goods, expansion of markets, demographic boom, measurement of world progress in terms of who produces more, and a race to control and exploit natural resources has also been the hallmark of our ‘modern’ civilization.
The scale of environmental pillage and destruction in just last 100 years or so has been unparalleled in human history. We may like it or not, but we all are very much a part of that process and contribute to that, knowing or unknowingly.
Thus, it’s we who have to engage, and decide where do we go from here. It has exactly been this concern, our shared destinies and shared purposes that we wish to now take control and stem the impending disaster. It’s precisely this lurking fear that has made us rediscover, invent and to widely use words like ‘governance’ and ‘sustainability’ since the 1990s.
The good news is that almost every government or private institution today has begun reporting on the commonly agreed ‘governance’ and ‘sustainability’ standards and practices. While there has been some kind of a progressive movement, it’s still too meagre to contend the Goliath we all face.
Almost all enlightened stakeholders, actually us all, have become active participants and have begun talking about it, rolling out awareness campaigns or advocating for others to do something. We have stormed social media with call outs, pledges, petitions, likes, shares…so on and so forth. Many of us have even gone ahead and undertaken some water conservation activities, restoration of water bodies, found ways to reuse and recycle. Some of us have even completely discarded single-use plastic bottles, straws, and purposefully ticked ‘no plastic cutlery’ while ordering food online.
The otherwise popular campaigns around ‘save water’, four Rs (refuse, reduce, recycle, reuse), ‘say no to plastics’ that have been yielding some results; creative folks have gradually shifted to somewhat more evolved messaging and many of us have begun internalising them too. Thus messages like ‘say more to less’, ‘your brand might have a drinking problem’ and ‘make India water-positive’, ‘planet or plastic’ are trending rapidly.
Throwing up numbers is always a good idea, helps situate oneself in the larger context, reflect and rediscover. Not sure on the ground-level impact of such campaigns, jaw-dropping numbers influence perceptions, helps informed decision-making.
For example, a few grim numbers like—it takes 17,000 litres of water to make a kilo of chocolate, 10,000 to make a pair of denims, 8,000 for a pair of shoes and 910 to build a mobile phone, industries are ‘consuming 70% of our entire usable water’, ‘5 trillion pieces of plastics are already floating on our oceans’, ‘by 2050 every seabird will be eating plastics’ and that nano plastics have already entered global food chains—surely plays on our mind when we think of how and what we buy, consume and dispose. Consequently, brands get pushed back, only to swiftly mainstream sustainability in their supply chains and ensure global certifications, like ‘bon sucro’ for sustainable sugarcane production.
Similarly, it certainly pains to read that ‘globally, it is likely that over 80% of wastewater is released to the environment without adequate treatment’ (UNESCO, 2017). Hurts, because don’t we all love bubbly streams, clean rivers, lakes, beaches and oceans? Who doesn’t dream of holidaying around them, snorkeling and exploring life deep inside those blue waters, also enjoying the diverse fresh water and seafood delicacies. That’s what our ancestors treasured for us, and that’s exactly we need to hand over to our children.
As for India, millions of our farmers and urban residents are a distressed lot as their borewells and traditional sources of water are drying up, getting contaminated with hazardous chemicals. On the other hand, several industries and manufacturing plants are drilling deeper in excess of even 1,000 feet, thus increasingly facing the ire from their neighbourhood communities who aren’t able to compete.
This farmer distress is now more often turning into a widespread unrest. In several cases, including those of large MNCs, they draw their shutters down and force them to pack up, often after a prolonged agitation and legal wranglings.
And they aren’t alone. Pressure from scarcity of water is mounting on others too. More states and countries are now locking horns, some even having slugging it out since several decades with no signs of truce. Look at Tamil Nadu-Karnataka, Haryana-Delhi, bloody conflicts between Rwanda and Sudan, Middle East. After all, it’s a battle for survival!
What’s worse, India has now disgracefully surpassed all other countries to become the leading extractor of groundwater. With most groundwater zones alarmingly slipping from ‘critical’ to ‘overexploited’, the per capita availability of water has dropped from 5,177 cubic metres in 1951 to 1,545 cubic metres in 2011, below the ‘stress level’ of 1,700 cubic metres. Going forward, it is likely to get worse. By 2050, India could well reach the water scarcity level of 1,000 cu m.
So, with India’s unprecedented water emergency, afflicting everyone–from households to farmers to manufacturers to governments, there is a growing stress on private entities’ Social Licence to Operate (SLO) on one hand and those in power on the other.
What’s worse, a very large number of manufacturing plants do not have even rainwater harvesting systems. Instead, they annually pump millions of litres of water from severely diminished aquifers and sometimes pay modest tax on its use to their local Panchayats or industry associations.
Can these firms, with huge roofs running into several thousand square feet, not connect the edges, channelise rainwater, store for their use and transfer the excess to the neighbourhood communities? Should becoming a water-positive brand not become a top priority for business sustainability?
Ditto with the government institutions having sizeable roofs. Does this require some kind of a stringent law, cess to be in place? Isn’t this a plain business sense? Should the new government at Centre not put in focus under MGNREGA, MPLADS to ensure that each village, each human habitat have sustainable clean water body, with the same sense of urgency as was with Aadhaar and GST?
Likewise, the focus of Sustainability reporting and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) surely has to also shift a bit. Yes support to education and healthcare is definitely non-negotiable.
Development economists that have influenced the UN’s ‘Human Development Reports’ since 1990 have influenced such social choice-making around ‘literacy’, ‘basic education’, primary healthcare and nutrition, longevity. However, spending almost two-thirds of the entire budget (around INR 9,000 crores) on education and healthcare, and leaving merely 25% for critical intervention areas like environmental sustainability leaves no legroom for addressing dire issues as water.
Most of the CSR spends are predominantly decided on the basis of where the company offices and manufacturing plants are located. Thus, already backward districts in several states and entire Northeast (comprising of seven states) gets no help from these industries even as they push for newer markets in tier-three towns and beyond. Commercially well-off states, on the other hand, like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu receive 60% of the CSR capital. What’s worse, sources suggest environmental sustainability is not a priority. That’s not good news, certainly.
Already mid-way into 2019, and amidst the entire world coming together to address critical global warming, environment and biodiversity issues, it’s time Indian government, industry and ‘we the citizens of India’ align ourselves to ‘shift’ our focus. Water is critical to us all. It’s central to ensuring good governance and that businesses remain sustainable over the long-term.

Views of the authors are personal and do not necessarily represent the website’s views.

Abhishek Chaturvedi is Founder of Sustainability Co-creators (SUSCO), Gurgaon. Dr. Vikas Goswami is Head, Sustainability – Good and Green, Godrej Industries Limited and Associate Companies.

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The CSR Journal Team