Global Insights | Perspectives

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Buddy Up

By Andre Fourie, Andrea Erickson-Quiroz and Stuart Orr

Andre Fourie is the Global Director, Water Sustainability, AB InBev. Andrea Erickson-Quiroz is the Acting Managing Director for Global Water, The Nature Conservancy. Stuart Orr is the Leader, Freshwater Practice, WWF International.

“This is going to be a piece of cake”—was a phrase markedly absent during a group video call in which the three of us decided to jointly write this, a piece about water security, one of the most complicated—and crucial—issues facing the world. Three people from different organizations, from different parts of the world, with different styles and different missions. And yet, here we are.

In a way, this represents the reality of any productive alliance, particularly one that crosses sectors or involves diverging views and organizations—no one is under the illusion that it is going to be easy. And yet, here we still are. Two environmental organizations—that some might perceive as competitors – and a multi-billion dollar global corporation whose interests might be seen by some to conflict with those of the environment.

Indeed 20, or even 15 years ago such an alliance would have been surprising. Global corporations were targets for campaigners and activists—on issues of resource management, human rights, corruption—the list goes on. And charities, battling for funding and influence, were gladiatorial rather than collaborative.

As things thawed between the private sector and civil society, relationships initially centered around philanthropy, fundraising or employee volunteering—all of which still have value. But leadership from both sides began to realize that they could work together, in the true meaning of partnership, to bring about changes from which they could all benefit, including transforming corporate approaches to water. Global food and drinks companies joined forces with the likes of WWF and TNC to steward the water sources on which their operations relied, at the same time benefiting ecosystems, biodiversity and communities. Many of these projects are still running and having a meaningful impact.

TNC and AB InBev are among the partners who formed a water fund in Colombia’s Cauca Valley that aims to improve water quality, reduce dry-season shortages, improve rural livel
Cauca Valley, Colombia TNC, AB InBev and partners formed a water fund that aims to improve water quality, reduce dry-season shortages, improve rural livelihoods and protect biodiversity. © Timothy Boucher/The Nature Conservancy

The scale of the challenges we face and the speed at which they are growing require a further evolution in our partnerships. As we write, there are devastating heatwaves and floods in Japan, wildfires in Greece, California and the Arctic circle, and an unprecedented drought in the United Kingdom. Cape Town has avoided ‘Day Zero’ for now but, it is a very real threat for many cities around the world.

But change has also occurred in more positive ways. Thanks to the 2015 Paris Accord, we have global consensus on the need for action to address climate change, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, adopted the same year by 150 nations, created a framework for eliminating poverty, hunger, inequality and environmental degradation, including targets to address the crisis facing freshwater ecosystems.

The scale of the challenges we face and the speed at which they are growing require a further evolution in our partnerships.

In this context, all actors—companies, civil society and the public sector—are evolving deeper, more integrated partnerships designed to solve problems in a purpose-led way that is commercially compelling, creates value for society and finds ways to capitalize on the interconnected nature of many of the challenges.

In our growing triumvirate, our shared vision is that of a water secure future: where people, commerce and nature all have reliable, equitable access to clean water. There are variances in our motivations, but the outcome is singular. Ours is not a formal arrangement—there is no three-party MOU or contract with deliverables. But there is a shared sense of urgency and purpose, and a consensus that the current pace of change is insufficient.

To achieve our vision of a water secure world, we can no longer think on a project-by-project, community-by-community basis. We must identify—and engage—the channels, actors and mechanisms that can be leveraged to effect change on a meaningful scale. We know who and what they are, and we are already having encouraging conversations with companies from a wide range of sectors, financial institutions, water utilities, city planning teams and national ministers of policy, urban planning, health.

Our loose collaboration means that our conversations are consistent and coherent. We are different organizations advocating for the same things: for natural, or ‘green’, infrastructure to be understood and valued and for it to become part of mainstream infrastructure planning and investment; for large corporations to appreciate the role that well-managed natural infrastructure—including rivers and wetlands—can play in long term business resilience and commercial success; and for mainstream capital and investment to be mobilized towards natural infrastructure as an effective and cost-efficient way to harness the power of nature to accelerate the move to a water secure world.

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