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The Indian water challenge WEF Water Summit at India

As I have mentioned before, it was in India that I was first convinced of the scale of the water challenge and the need to address it through a collaborative approach. I will be back in India next week, both for Nestlé’s annual Global Creating Shared Value Forum, but also to speak at the “Water Summit at India” in New Delhi/Gurgaon on Tuesday, in my role as Chairman of the Water Resources Group (WRG).

India is a vital part of the water debate: it is on track to become the world’s third largest economy by 2015, and the most populous country by 2030. Yet the initial report (pdf document) by the 2030 Water Resources Group has highlighted the scale of the water challenge it faces as a result of such momentous growth. It argues that the simultaneous effects of growing food and energy needs, rapid industrialisation coupled with declining surface and groundwater quantity, intra- and interstate water disputes, and inefficiencies in water practice, mean that freshwater withdrawals in 2030 may be almost twice the volume of sustainable supply.

So, what needs to be done? I argue that we should focus on three key areas.

Building consensus

Sadly, despite the vast scale of the issue, there is currently a considerable lack of agreement among practitioners (including the private sector, governments, and civil society) on the appropriate range of social and environmental issues that must be addressed in India. In many cases, water conservation measures such as water harvesting and groundwater recharge have been implemented by different organisations, with results being measured separately.

It is my belief – and it will be a key area of focus on Tuesday – that we need to build a consensus on water issues in India. The best way to do this is through a multi-stakeholder platform involving governmental and non-governmental organisations, industry organisations and academic institutions. This will also enable us to develop partnerships to face the shared goal of improving water management.

This is a cornerstone of the WRG’s approach and it has already worked well in South Africawhere such a network is now working jointly with the government to convert national priority strategy themes into practical programmes and projects, including securing financing for the initiatives.

Gaining a better understanding of local issues

Another key problem is the lack of reliable, qualitative assessments on water consumption at the farm, municipal and enterprise level. The nature of risks in different socio-economic and geographic settings has not been articulated beyond a first-order analysis of the potential imbalance between average annual demand and supply in the water sector.

Together, we need to combine macro-level information about water supply and use with local-relevant data (such as local water availability and pricing trends, changing agriculture production policies, and information about other local complementary businesses and markets, reuse and recycle opportunities and associated tax benefits).

This will allow all stakeholders to make significantly better decisions and cope with changes in water availability in a robust manner. The development of an analytical, open access framework for water risk will be very useful.

Establishing a framework for risk assessment

The Columbia Water Center (CWC) and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) have conducted a preliminary water risks study across 27 industrial sectors (industry is the second highest user of water after agriculture) in India. An astonishing 87% of companies believe that limitations in water supply will affect their business within the next decade, and 47% claimed that the high cost of obtaining water is their primary concern.

It is clear that businesses in India and all other stakeholders in a watershed – farmers, municipal users – need to assess different levels of water scarcity risks and develop concrete strategies to address them. A framework needs to be developed for assessing water risk and sustainability, enabling better quantification and analysis of water risks within organisations and their supply chains. Therefore, better quantification of water use and impact will enable water risk reduction, and successful engagement of stakeholders in comprehensive solutions.

Water scarcity in India is set to be one of the world’s most acute issues over the coming decades. Only by addressing these three areas above can the public and private sector jointly address the challenges for improving water stewardship and competitiveness in the global context. I am looking forward to the session next week – in the meantime, if you have any thoughts, I would be very pleased to hear them.