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Water footprinting: will it help companies manage a scarce resource?

Polluted Waterways

Can water footprinting help companies manage water scarcity and pollution risks? Photograph: Bodo Marks/ Bodo Marks/dpa/Corbis


Powered by article titled “Water footprinting: will it help companies manage a scarce resource?” was written by Flemmich Webb, for on Wednesday 4th September 2013 17.03 UTC

Water is not just vital to sustain life; it’s also a crucial resource for businesses. From food and clothing to cars and mobile phones, water is an essential input. But if you don’t know how much you are using or how much is available to use in a given catchment, it’s impossible to reduce water use or identify threats to operations from water scarcity.

In a recent survey, chief executives and world leaders said they regarded water availability in the top five global risks to business — and with good reason. Water scarcity or pollution incidents can halt production, disrupt the supply chain, lead to conflict with other water users, such as farmers or communities in the area, and harm corporate reputations.

It’s imperative to get water management right, not just at head office but right along the supply chain. This is no easy task – it’s taken a lot of effort and time to get companies to do the equivalent for carbon emissions, and water-use assessment is some way behind, certainly in terms of take up.

One method is to apply Water Footprint Network’s water footprint assessment methodology – recently launched as a free online tool. This is a four-stage process, which allows the user to set the goal and scope of the assessment, calculate the water footprint (the total volume of freshwater used to produce goods and services), assess its sustainability in terms of local water scarcity and pollution levels, and work to reduce the water footprint or improve sustainability. This was the approach the C&A Foundation, with the fashion company C&A, took, recently announcing a three-year partnership with Water Footprint Network around sustainable water use.

As part of this initiative, C&A wanted to calculate the water footprint for the manufacture of cotton products along its supply chain, and assess its sustainability. It was particularly interested in comparing the levels of harmful pollutants released into the environment – specifically fresh water – from conventional and organic cotton cultivation.

By calculating the water footprint of 480 supplier farms in India, C&A discovered that conventional cotton cultivation has a grey water footprint (the volume of freshwater needed to dilute pollutants to keep water quality at acceptable standards) about five times larger than the organic equivalent, mainly because of the use of chemical pesticides on non-organic farms.

“These studies have provided us with valuable insights that will help us to further reduce our water footprint along the entire value chain,” said Phil Chamberlain, head of sustainable business development and board member of the C&A Foundation last month.

“We are developing mandatory guidelines, instruments and training for our partners, cotton farmers and factory workers.”

It’s not just the fashion sector that is looking at water use along the supply chain. Tata Group, working with Water Footprint Network and International Finance Corporation, recently published a report detailing the results of a joint project to develop its corporate water sustainability framework, promote sustainable water use at the company’s 12 plants across India, and contribute to the global knowledge pool about corporate water stewardship.

Four Tata Group companies – Tata Steel, Tata Chemicals, Tata Motors and Tata Power – carried out a water footprint assessment. This highlighted a number of areas where the companies should target efforts to improve the sustainability of its water use. For Tata Motors, for example, the assessment showed that its 1,000 suppliers are responsible for a majority of its water footprint, while the highest “inside-the-fence” water consumption is from its paint shop and forging operations.

It also showed that Jamshedpur, where Tata Motors has a facility, becomes a water scarcity hotspot from February to May when the River Subarnarekha is at its lowest level – and how much it relies on dammed water to cover the shortages.

Tata Motors plans to use this information as a benchmark against which to improve performance. Meanwhile, Tata Group is rolling out the water footprint assessment methodology for other companies in the group.

“We looked closely at the water footprint both in the operations and along the supply in the context of the local water scarcity and water pollution to help identify where the company’s water footprint was contributing to local water stress,” says Ruth Mathews, executive director of Water Footprint Network.


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