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Final Thoughts from Stockholm World Water Week 2009

bjorn-mug22I’ve been coming to World Water Week for years, in fact since the start, as ITT was one of the first founders and supporters of the Water Week festival and Stockholm Junior Water Prize.

What I found most interesting about this year’s is the urgency of the conversation.

COP 15, the United Nations climate change conference, is in a few short months, and some of the most compelling discussions were about the role of water in climate change and climate change adaptation. Mr. Syed Ashrafulislam, Bangladesh Minister of Local Government, Rural Development, and Cooperatives, put it an interesting way when he said “Water is the medium through which most of the impacts of climate change will be felt (by businesses, governments and communities alike).” Therefore, water must become an integral part of all discussions on climate and adaptation.

For businesses, this means increasing water efficiency, much the same way they look to increase energy efficiency (in fact, as I’ve noted before, the two go hand in hand), not only in their own operations, but throughout their supply chain. The private sector is beginning to look into every crevice to find efficiencies, including product use as well as operations and manufacturing. In recent years I’ve heard companies also talk about how they can help customers and consumers reduce their water usage. Unilever’s “Small and Mighty” program is one good example.

Because so many development organizations were present, international development was also a focus of the week. Despite talk of global “green shoots,” money and credit remain tight, and in such times the mandate for performance intensifies. This topic was the focus of a roundtable ITT hosted this week, with Molson Coors, the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council and Ashoka, among others.

A participant summarized the conversation nicely when he said that “It’s not about philanthropy, it’s about accountability, sustainability and ultimately, impact.” This means different things for different people, but for businesses, inherent in this concept is the ability to make money at some point. No initiatives, however worthwhile, are sustainable without profit.

  • Accountability: wanting to have a lasting impact on society must mean ensuring that we have impact – that is, demanding accountability on all fronts. Businesses certainly must hold themselves and their NGO partners accountable by defining a clear objective and setting measurable benchmarks. But as Ned Breslin, president of Water For People (full disclosure: an ITT Watermark partner) said, NGOs in turn must hold businesses and program beneficiaries accountable. “Please (also) do hold poor people accountable,” he said. A concept I think that is too often ignored.
  • Sustainability & Profit: There are two ways of looking at sustainability here. Ned reminded us that philanthropies need to move beyond writing the check and make sure they are funding sustainable projects, for which corporate funding will eventually not be needed. This may mean funding or part funding of the establishment of wells rather than providing bottled water, for example.
  • Providing Business Incentives: And then there is the concept of providing businesses with incentives to create a new kind of business model. Other participants mentioned an interesting point that is worth raising here: could we create incentives for business to invest in technology that helps better the lives of the so-called bottom of the pyramid? One way to do this is to set different margin expectations. For example, if a traditional product or line of business is held to a 15 percent margin, could we, for products that have a demonstrated, measurable impact on society but hold less promise on revenue, reduce profit expectations to six percent? This would give business an incentive to invest in and develop products that help our world without being penalized by the financial community. I think this concept is worth exploring further.

To do each of these things, however, businesses must choose issues that speak to their business, but also focus on activities that leverage their specific expertise. As important as I think water is, it is probably not an appropriate issue for every business.

Peter Swinburn, president and CEO of Molson Coors, recalls how his company arrived at the issue of water, commenting “We wanted to contribute to an area where we could leverage our expertise to have a valuable and lasting impact throughout all the areas we live and work-and water was that issue.”

As global businesses we are all citizens of many countries. With this comes responsibility, but also opportunity. As World Water Week ends for this year, I am proud of the progress that has been made and excited for what the future will bring. The next few months will be critical to shaping the next few years for water. How we use this opportunity will be interesting to see and take part in.

Bjorn Von Euler, director of corporate philanthropy for ITT Corp., attended the World Water Week proceedings in Stockholm, Sweden. He is writing a series of reports on the event for Environmental Leader.

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One thought on “Final Thoughts from Stockholm World Water Week 2009

  1. Bjorn,

    Thank you for writing this piece, and for your and ITT’s support for global safe drinking water over the years.

    I’d like to reiterate one point that Water For People’s Ned Breslin made at Stockholm: “Please hold poor people accountable.”

    Donors, implementing nonprofits, and local communities *all* need to be held accountable for the sustainability of their water and sanitation programming. Often the best way to ensure decentralized ownership and thereby local sustainability is by making sure that the local communities have a financial stake in the program. This often comes as an upfront cash investment in the capital costs of the work (e.g. the community itself pays for 5-25% of the cost of the borewell) and most if not all of the ongoing operating costs. This contribution will be managed by a village water committee or its equivalent in an urban or peri-urban environment. That committee will also be charged with ensuring that the benefits of the program are distributed equitably, including to those families and individuals who are too poor to pay anything at all.

    ITT, Water For People, and many other groups (for profit and/or nonprofit – this distinction is often lost on me) are doing what they can to “work themselves out of a job” – the true goal of global development work. Accountability and sustainability (including financial sustainability) are two facets of development which need to pervade the safe drinking water sector.

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