Could collective action help solve the urgent challenge of water?

The UN estimates that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in countries or regions facing absolute water scarcity. Hanneke Willenborg, Unilever’s Global Vice President for Surf, Skip and Water, who recently hosted a roundtable on the issue, explores why only collective action will deliver the scale of change required.

Hanneke Willenborg

Hanneke Willenborg

Global Vice President for Surf, Skip and Water

Hanneke is globally responsible for the Surf and Skip brands and leads Unilever's laundry category programme on water

Most people agree that water scarcity is serious, and worsening.

But water is a complex issue, involving many different people and groups, often with competing priorities. And while we all agree a challenge exists, we don’t necessarily all agree on exactly what it is, let alone how we should address it.

Yet complexity shouldn’t stop us from trying to work together to resolve the challenge. Here at Unilever, we want to explore ways to address water scarcity at scale – which is why recently we partnered with Xyntéo, an organisation that works on commercially driven collaborations, to bring together some of the leading experts on water. Our challenge? To discuss what has prevented us from making greater progress in the past, and how we could work together to make a lasting impact.

Why the water challenge is so urgent

Water scarcity is serious because it affects so many people, ecosystems and businesses. The UN estimates that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in countries or regions facing absolute water scarcity, while two-thirds of the world's population could be under water-stressed conditions.

This scarcity has real impacts on people’s lives. These are too many to list – from preventable deaths of children associated with poor sanitation to challenges for farmers in producing food and the detrimental impact on women and girls in the many cultures where they bear the burden of time-consuming water collection.

It’s also a business problem. Barriers to economic development are barriers to businesses, which also face risk and uncertainty when water is scarce. For Unilever, 85% of the water use associated with our products happens in consumers’ homes – when they cook or clean their teeth, wash their hands, hair, clothes or floors.

Why scale is necessary

There have been successes in addressing water scarcity. Measures such as reducing over-irrigation or reusing wastewater in industrial processes have had impacts while proving highly cost-effective. The Strategic Water Partners Network in South Africa is regarded as a prime example of fruitful collaboration between the public and private sector.

But these successes have so far been isolated. The water situation in every river basin is unique, involving a wide variety of people and groups, from consumers, farmers and businesses to regulators, water companies, NGOs and often many others. The challenge is not always understood, individual investments don’t always have a wider impact and collaboration is often difficult because the investment required is often large and at odds with stakeholders’ short-term interests.

If we can find a way to scale up successful approaches to water scarcity, we will have the opportunity to deliver solutions much more widely, and cost effectively, than has been possible up to now.

The potential for progress

This was our first roundtable and participants covered an enormous amount of ground, drawing on the huge amount of expertise and experience from NGOs, water consultancies and businesses that was assembled in one place.

I'm encouraged by some of the areas that we identified as having potential for a collective action approach. For example, collaborating on a segmentation study in farm water use, the potential for using digital technology for mapping and enforcement, and the need for a marketplace for ideas and contacts.

It is clear that there is a lot more to do – but also that the will to do it exists. I look forward to continuing this conversation to make further progress on what is one of the biggest challenges we face as a society.

Unilever partnered with Xyntéo to bring together a cross-sector selection of specialists and practitioners at an inaugural roundtable event in June 2016: 'Water: Unlocking the dynamics of scale.'

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