We have been at the forefront of efforts to engage different groups to advance water stewardship – an inherently collaborative approach to managing shared water resources. Collaboration and sharing of knowledge is central to our ethos and is reflected in how we engage with local stakeholders through partnerships and networks. Enabling knowledge from local implementation to inform governance of our international water stewardship system is critical to the future evolution of water stewardship.
Our aim is to engage key organizations, advance collective understanding of water-related challenges, and facilitate genuine and meaningful collaboration for long-term sustainability. To advance this collective approach to learning and knowledge-sharing, and recognizing that our system is still at an early stage, we have compile some of the key lessons we have learned since launching the AWS Standard in 2014.
We define water stewardship as “the use of water that is socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial achieved through a stakeholder-inclusive process that involves site and catchment based actions”. Prior to AWS, there was no agreed upon definition of “water stewardship”. While any given set of words may never be universally accepted, our definition does offer a generally agreed position of what water stewardship is, as evidenced by its reference in academic and grey literature. In addition, the AWS Standard offers a clear conceptualization of what water stewardship involves, while AWS certified sites are strong case studies of water stewardship, its outcomes and benefits.
When the AWS Standard was first proposed our ambition was to develop a universal standard that could be operationalized across all sectors and geographies. During development a number of stakeholders were understandably sceptical of this position. Since launching the Standard in 2014 (and through previous pilot tests of the beta version) implementations have proven that the standard works in a range of contexts. The standard has now been successfully applied in countries across four continents, and in radically different sectors and commercial settings, without losing any of its significance. Evidence from these implementations suggest strong validation as to the universal applicability of the AWS Standard.
Despite the global applicability of the AWS Standard, particular sectors have been more
advanced in their adoption of water stewardship than others. This points to a commonality within sectors as to the type, scale and location of water-related risks faced. It would also serve as evidence of the importance of learning and the transparent sharing of knowledge, both of which are cornerstones of the AWS system and of the CEO Water Mandate. Beverage and food companies with agricultural supply chains have led and so can offer many insights for other organizations and sectors. Industry platforms can also be important partners in supporting member companies new to action on water beyond site boundaries along the stewardship journey.
Implementations of the Standard in diverse settings across a range of sectors have demonstrated the value of the AWS Standard in translating global corporate commitments on water into locally meaningful action. The cases of AWS Standard implementation that have been followed by certification have also resulted in greater collaboration between a site and the corporate sustainability team. For the site, the fact that an independent external auditor will be involved, along with corporate scrutiny on a site, has driven action. For the sustainability team, the corporate commitment to achieve certification has opened up a greater degree of openness and collaboration with their colleagues at site level. This has been welcomed by sustainability teams that have at times struggled to make water a priority for sites.
Translating global corporate commitments on water into locally meaningful stewardship interventions through better engagement with data, water policy and law, public sector agencies, civil society and neighbouring water users has proven to be one of the core strengths of the AWS Standard. Factors such as access to robust data and sites knowing who to consult and collaborate with locally have shown themselves to be vital to the successful implementation of the Standard. A lesson for AWS in this process has been the importance of access to local expertise, datasets and support structures. This is why our regional partners are focused on developing local networks and training local stakeholders in the AWS Standard.
Like any other technology, sustainability standards need to evolve to meet rapidly changing needs. We already know that the terminology in the AWS Standard can be improved upon to make it more relevant to smaller scale water users such as smallholder farmers. Similarly, there are several changes that could be made to make the Standard more accessible for farmers in corporate supply chains or for small and medium sized industrial enterprises. Learnings from implementations need to continue to support the development of guidance, and this should become more local and sector-specific. Developing such guidance requires “local-to-global” learning pathways and strong local partners and networks.
Another area where the AWS Standard will need to be strengthened is in relation to water-related SDG issues such as Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), Energy, Health, Food Security and Climate Change. The AWS Standard v.1.0 incorporates learning from across the development sector on these issues but AWS’s continued engagement with global water initiatives, international NGOs and development platforms pursuing compatible objectives will be necessary in order to track and incorporate new learning as it emerges.
A pre-requisite to improvements to the AWS Standard is the input of members and implementing sites, critiquing and feeding back on its performance. Our initial members have been invaluable in this regard, providing valuable insights that are shaping the AWS system. Conversely our members state that they have found real benefit in being part of an organization from which they can both draw support and be involved in shaping the evolution of processes. The AWS Technical Committee represents the interests of members and will oversee the technical development of AWS, including the first review and revision of the AWS Standard through 2017 and 2018. Growing our member base will grow our evidence base which will ensure the AWS system continually evolves to be responsive to diverse needs.
While it might seem obvious, one key lesson we have learned (or perhaps one that has simply been re-emphasized) is that each location, each company, each site is unique. Even within a single corporation, every site will experience unique challenges, have different capacities and different individuals to deal with these challenges. While there are generic value propositions, in the ultimate analysis, how the Standard is applied and the actions it stimulates are site-specific – and this is how it should be. One of the great opportunities we have is to effectively communicate that the globally-applicable AWS Standard can drive collaborative actions to address very specific local challenges.
It is clear that there are pressing water-related challenges in many parts of the world. Very few, if any, countries are positioned comfortably when it comes to water. As we have engaged with stakeholders in different parts of the world in the two and a half years since the Standard’s launch, one thing has become very clear: in most cases the challenge is more political than hydrological. Neglecting the political element of water-related challenges is a good recipe for disappointing outcomes. There exist clear opportunities to effectively communicate the value of the AWS Standard in providing a safe place to begin conversations, ask the right questions and build trust.
With some notable exceptions, particularly in Australia, public sector agencies have been only peripherally involved in water stewardship implementation. As a result, much of the policy landscape and Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) discussions have yet to be fully woven into either the water stewardship debate or water stewardship practice at field level. The role of water stewardship in supporting public policy is crucial and needs to be advanced through greater engagement with public sector agencies at national and local scales. In several locations, for example sub-Saharan Africa, AWS training programs have proven useful in engaging public sector at national and catchment level, strengthening understanding of public sector roles in water stewardship. We need to build on this success to create templates for greater public sector engagement.
Clearly defined catchment goals to which business can align their water stewardship practice can enable companies to adopt water stewardship more rapidly. Where these exist, businesses can quickly get a solid contextual understanding and develop their stewardship plans to align with these goals. They can also more easily engage with responsible public sector agencies. Conversely, where catchment goals are yet to be developed, or the public sector lacks the capacity to implement them, there exists an opportunity for water stewards to strengthen engagement on catchment goals.
When the UN adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) it was made very clear that the private sector had a critical role in their achievement. The SDGs call for a fundamental shift in our relationship to water, and as the largest water user, the private sector should be front and centre in this effort. The AWS Standard has a significant role to play in engaging the private sector in the SDG agenda, most notably in regard to the 8 targets in SDG 6.
The ubiquitous nature of water means that the AWS Standard also touches each of the other 16 SDGs. The Standard can be a ‘driver’ for 18 targets in nine goals, can contribute to the achievement of 22 targets in nine goals and reinforce 15 targets in nine goals. Importantly, AWS can build the multi-stakeholder partnerships identified in Goal 17 that will be help achieve the overall SDG package. The AWS Standard provides a clear and independently verifiable route for businesses looking to ensure that their actions on water are aligned with the ambitions of the global development community.
AWS is a full member of the ISEAL Alliance which requires compliance with three codes of good practice, Standard Setting, Assurance and Impacts.
More information on our approach to monitoring, evaluation and learning will be available shortly.