A man fills plastic jugs with a hose.
Water Delivery in Nairobi A man fills up 5 gallon containers with fresh water at a water filling station in Nairobi, Kenya, where he will later deliver the fresh water to residents and businesses. © Nick Hall

Companies Investing in Nature

Water Is a Global Challenge That Requires Local Solutions

A new guide will help companies tap into sustainable water targets

Headshot of Naabia Ofosu-Amaah.
Naabia Ofosu-Amaah Senior Corporate Engagement Advisor, Water and Resilience


Water is a basic ingredient in the products we consume every day. Consider water use by the numbers:

·         Water used to produce a pair of jeans: 1,800 gallons

·         Water used to produce a hamburger: 630 gallons

·         Water used to produce a 32-gallon barrel of beer: 1,500 gallons

Agriculture takes up the bulk of freshwater use – accounting for about 70 percent of water withdrawals – to produce food, fuel, and fiber. In addition to the water used in production of these raw materials, water use increases in production and manufacturing along the value chain as well.

Water is so fundamental to our global economy that the United Nations has prioritized water as Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—in fact water is essential to achieving virtually all of the SDGs. And much of the added stress of climate change is seen primarily through water – droughts and scarcity, increased extreme weather, flooding, and corresponding impacts on water and sanitation infrastructure.

Companies are taking note. Water increasingly impacts the private sector in the form of risk and supply chain management. Water security is business continuity.

Yet despite the interest, managing water across the value chain is complicated because it’s extremely place-based and context specific. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. 

Setting contextual water targets

A group of NGOs, including TNC, has set out to identify best practices so companies can ramp up water sustainability programs faster and at scale, but still address the local challenges they face.

TNC joined with CDP, the UN Global Compact’s CEO Water Mandate, the Pacific Institute, UNEP-DHI, World Resources Institute, and World Wildlife Fund to develop guidance for companies to set site water targets informed by catchment context and shared goals for improvement. This approach is intended for companies at all levels of sophistication and is evolving through field testing in Southern California, South Africa, India, and Brazil.

The site water targets outlined in the guide are aligned with SDG6 targets and informed by local catchment, or watershed, context. Strong site water targets must also be informed by the best available science, respect the basin’s environmental, economic and social needs, consider current and future conditions, support public sector objectives, consider industry-leading practice, and be rooted in achieving long-term water security.

This guide lays out three key elements for setting effective site water targets:

  1. Targets should respond to priority water challenges within the catchment;
  2. Target ambition should be informed by the site’s contribution to water challenges and desired conditions; and
  3. Targets should reduce water risk, capitalize on opportunities and contribute to public sector priorities.

This process requires an understanding of context, including baseline conditions and a site’s contribution to achieving the desired conditions. Setting targets in this way will allow site water managers to inform actions and drive performance to reduce water risks, realize opportunities, and contribute to water security. This process is also likely to contribute to collective action, by helping companies align with existing water stewardship initiatives and partnering with others to achieve catchment-wide goals.

Water insecurity is not just a business risk, of course—it’s a risk for human health and well-being. Setting effective water targets can help companies solve a key business challenge, but just as importantly, it will allow them to be better partners with their communities as they tackle this growing challenge.

Headshot of Naabia Ofosu-Amaah.

Naabia Ofosu-Amaah is senior corporate engagement advisor of The Nature Conservancy's Water and Resilience program.

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