Accelerating Action: The need for next generation water targets

Suzanne Zweben Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

Originally posted by CEO Water Mandate, this blog calls for transformational change in water stewardship efforts.

There is an opportunity for leading companies endorsing the CEO Water Mandate to rise to the challenge as water stewardship efforts have not kept pace with the scale of water scarcity and pollution problems.

Agriculture drives roughly 70 percent of global water withdrawals and is undoubtedly one of the most climate-sensitive sectors. As other contributors to this blog have highlighted, the impacts of climate change on water can and must be addressed throughout company supply chains – especially companies with a stake in agriculture.

The food and beverage industry in particular has much at stake in a warming world. In Oxfam’s recent experience engaging food and beverage companies on their approach to social responsibility and sustainability in their supply chains, we have seen the most progress on gender equality, land rights and climate change. Despite some encouraging moves by a few companies, we have generally found only incremental improvements on water. This is surprising given that water crises continue to rank high among the most impactful risks to countries and industries in the 2016 World Economic Forum’s global risks report.

Over the summer, Oxfam released a report and an interactive tool presenting new data on the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions footprints and water scarcity footprints of 17 major food commodities.

Companies have a clear interest and responsibility in addressing their contribution to both global emissions and water scarcity

The research presented in this report demonstrates the major contribution of key food commodities not only to GHG emissions but also to water scarcity in a warming world. This has significant implications for the livelihoods, adaptive capacity and food security of local communities, notably in the highly water-scarce region of Asia and Oceania where production of food commodities, like rice and wheat, require huge amounts of water. This is driven by high regional water scarcity and high water use for irrigation – which is 10 times higher than in other regions.

This research shows companies have a clear interest and responsibility in addressing their contribution to both global emissions and water scarcity. It is critical that companies identify water stressed regions not only where they have operations but also where they source ingredients and focus their efforts. Engaging suppliers to mitigate adverse impacts in water-stressed areas will be essential. For companies sourcing sugarcane, wheat and rice from Asia for instance, this is probably a good place to start.

Recently, some companies have started stepping up to provide much needed leadership on GHG reduction by setting science-based mitigation targets for their entire supply chains. Progress has also come as companies have begun to increasingly ensure all of their mitigation efforts are backed by science.

It’s encouraging to see the CEO Water Mandate and environmental NGOs assessing how the water community can learn from the Science-Based Target initiative and exploring what the next generation of water stewardship targets could look like. These strategies need to be developed together with local communities and governments, and other stakeholders in specific watersheds. All the while evaluating how such efforts – which must be context-specific – can roll up into meaningful and ambitious action that makes a dent in water scarcity. These efforts could be tied to Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals or some other overall measure that reaches across supply chains, so long as there is action.

Two-thirds of the world’s population – about 4 billion people – already live with severe water scarcity for at least one month a year, and half a billion people face severe water scarcity all year round.

We don’t have the luxury of waiting until the methodology is perfect to take action. We have learned that lesson on the emissions side. There is value to getting started and refining and improving as you go. And we must go, now.


Bhavika Patel