Collaborating for success

Climate & Natural resources12 Feb 2013Tex Gunning

The challenges and problems facing water management call for collaboration between many different parties and for a multidisciplinary approach.

On 30 April, Dutch Crown Prince Willem Alexander will be crowned King of the Netherlands, a country known for its continuous dance with water, with 26% of the country below sea level and 55% at risk of flooding. Indeed the Prince has dedicated much of his professional life to water, playing an active role as Chairman of the UN Advisory Board for Water and Sanitation. Beyond the Netherlands, water is becoming an increasingly important issue as the globe’s population grows and demand for food, water and energy increases.

The challenges and problems facing us today are well understood by many. It is extremely sad that we are capable of (and are planning to) send people to Mars while 800 million people still do not have access to clean, fresh water.

Access to water is essential not only to life, but also to the sustainability of our business. We rely on water to produce raw materials, design and manufacture products and generate power, for cooling, cleaning and transport, and to use certain products effectively.

At AkzoNobel, the world’s leading paints and coatings company and a major producer of specialty chemicals, we treat water as the limited resource it is by optimizing our water-use through greater efficiency, innovative processes and new technologies. Our ambition is to achieve sustainable fresh water management at all our 300 manufacturing sites by 2015. At the end of 2011, 74% of our manufacturing sites had such systems (an increase of 26% on 2010).

In addition to reducing the intake of fresh water, we also need to tackle the impact our operations may have on local fresh water resources and ecosystems. That is why we continue to reduce the chemical oxygen demand (COD) of our effluent to surface water.

But we also know that, on its own, increasing efficiency within our operations is not enough to safeguard the resources we need for our business. We recognize that we must mobilize partnerships with government bodies and NGOs to improve our understanding of the shared water challenges we face, enabling us to make better management decisions.

Indeed, a multidisciplinary approach involving many different parties is vital if we are to overcome the many technical, operational, financial and legal issues often associated with water. I believe businesses can play a very significant role within this framework, not only because of their experience of managing complex projects, but also because of the financial rigor that they can bring to discussions.

Bringing NGOs, governments, communities and industry coalitions together to play an active role in the water debate, share lessons learned and encourage better water stewardship will help create new innovative approaches to tackle the key issues.

Of course regional water providers are a vital stakeholder within this debate and I believe there is a real opportunity for businesses to engage with them in a meaningful way. Beyond simply working with these organizations to maximize water management efficiencies, businesses should be prepared to work more collaboratively with them to develop new ideas aimed at tackling the key water issues in their region.

As this is only a short blog I have not touched upon other important aspects, like the impact of water tariff structures, cross-border conflict resolution, opportunities for entrepreneurial small scale point-of-use purification, tidal energy generation, the role women could play, the need for further transparency … and many more. But I hope these thoughts trigger some ideas about what can be achieved through collaboration.