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Published on: March 31, 2022, 6:05 p.m.
Reality or chimera?
  • Access to clean water and sanitation supports healthier families and a more productive workforce

By Shweta Tyagi. The author is Chief Functionary, India Water Foundation

There is no denying that the world has been turned upside down by the pandemic, and that includes our way of doing business. As a global community, we must work together to build a better, more sustainable future and make that our new normal. Corporations can and should lead the way by changing how businesses operate as it can have the most significant impact. Businesses, investors, civil society organisations, international development networks, and national governments must collaboratively approach and contribute to solutions that can help achieve the 17 SDGs by 2030. Waiting around is not an option. 

Currently, 844 million people globally are living without access to clean water, while a staggering 2.3 billion are without access to a decent toilet. In addition, 2.1 billion people worldwide lack access to safe, readily available water at home, and 4.5 billion lacks safely managed sanitation. It is projected that two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas by 2025, a problem pandemic, climate change, and population growth will only exacerbate. 

Achievement of SDG-6 requires massive commitments from governments as well as businesses. The business community must be at the heart of the solution. Corporations are impacted and directly impact water resource quality through their activities, primarily through water consumption and discharge into natural water resources. In water-stressed areas, these impacts are more acutely seen and felt.

According to UNGC, 90 per cent of water consumed in the world today is used for agricultural or industrial purposes, highlighting the crucial role that businesses must play in promoting the responsible use and effective governance of global water resources. It is estimated that to achieve SDG targets related to water and sanitation, annual investment as high as $45 billion is required and a significant portion is expected to come from the private sector. 

Businesses need to understand the impact of their activities on the local ecosystems and communities and take actions for sustainable use of water resources. Disclosure on water consumption unlocks the power of corporate action to address our water challenges. We have seen that year-on-year, more companies are showing initiatives in improving water use efficiency, water quality, water ecosystems and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) services. This will help improve collaborations with governments, businesses, NGOs, and communities to devise strategies and programmes and make a huge difference in achieving SDG-6.

India has more to gain from achieving the SDG goals, especially SDG-6. This is due to water’s crosscutting nature in achieving other goals. People in India are already experiencing effects of the climate crisis. The country faces more extreme events than the global average, which causes huge human and financial losses.

Hence, businesses in India have a critical role to play in transforming the country to be more sustainable and also to build India’s competitiveness and inclusivity. They need to focus on opportunities to provide a low-carbon environment for growth that helps secure resilient livelihoods and profits. Companies that prioritise India’s sustainable development in their growth strategies stand to benefit in the coming decade. 

Key challenges: Many businesses integrate SDGs as a way to improve their brand reputation. However, recently there have been many corporations pursuing SDGs as a strategic agenda. But there are some barriers and challenges that need to be addressed to have more involved and collective integration of SDGs, especially SDG-6 by corporations in India. These include:

Understanding: Although many corporate leaders have shown interest towards implementation of sustainable development initiatives, there is still lack of proactive action. This is primarily due to lack of understanding about the long-term benefits of SDG implementation in business activities.

Financing: There is a huge financial gap in integrating SDGs in the business models, particularly in India. Many corporations do not get opportunities for private-public financing collaborations primarily due to policy constraints. Thus, it becomes a substantial barrier for businesses to invest in sustainability initiatives. This can be overcome with proper collaborations between the government and corporations.

Mechanisms: There are many mechanisms available for supporting sustainable development initiatives, but the challenge lies in leveraging these options, accelerating cost reductions, and achieving meaningful changes. There is a need to integrate these mechanisms along coherent development paths that respond to specific local and sectoral needs, provide incentives and mechanisms for rapid innovation, diffusions, and knowledge-sharing. 

Success factor: Businesses should build on responsible business practices and take active steps to understand and respond to the impact of their end-to-end operations on water resources and communities. They can do so by implementing water stewardship plans developed in consultation with other water users. This can help to connect business strategies with global priorities and help businesses to show how they can help advance sustainable development, both by minimising negative impact and maximising positive impact on people and the planet. Businesses can use the SDGs as a framework to shape and guide their strategies, goals, and activities, allowing them to capitalise on a range of benefits. 

 Some of the factors that corporations can use to achieve SDG-6 are:

Holistic water strategies: Corporations can play an important role in protecting water resources around their end-to-end operations. They should assess, monitor, and report water usage and develop strategies to improve local water resources by investing in programmes to support responsible water use. Businesses can also collaborate in Integrated Water Resource Management plans by governments and respond to aggregate impacts on shared water resources.

Protect water ecosystems: Businesses should respect environmental laws governing the protection of ecosystems that may be harmed as a result of their operations. They should take responsibility to protect and/or restore natural water resources so that quality water is available to all stakeholders in the watersheds around their end-to-end operations. 

Collaborations: Corporations can lead collaborations with governments, industry, and civil society to devise strategies and programmes on WASH services. Collaboration is vital, both within sectors and across different industries. This can be done by addressing joint local impacts, sharing knowledge, technologies, and infrastructure. This can help vulnerable populations have access to clean water and sanitation.

Moving forward

Access to clean water and sanitation supports healthier families and a more productive workforce. Companies have started to realise that strategic investments in SDGs deliver value through reducing risks and decreasing operating and supply chain costs. This further translates into improved product value and opening new market opportunities for Indian businesses.

In conclusion, we must note that the inter-dependence between SDGs and business has immense implications in terms of local action and national policy to cope with the economic ruins from the pandemic. SDGs would not only promote new business opportunities, but more importantly, they would also help in sustaining conducive investment climate in the country. Integrating SDGs in the national development agenda will also have immense implications for contemporary India’s flagship Make in India Programme and the Atmanirbar Bharat Abhiyan. 

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