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Q&A on Water with Chris Brown, Vice President, CR&S

1. What role is water policy playing in preventing water scarcity?

Given all of the water scarcity challenges we face, you would think that governments would have implemented stronger water policies. It is refreshing to see that California with its Sustainable Groundwater Management Act has really taken the bull by the horns.  Across the world, we debate water policy issues and spend months discussing the minutiae. But without being joined up across borders, businesses and water basins, it means very little. The last 20 years of deliberation on water policy have yielded very little real impact on the ground.

Why? Water cannot be ring-fenced. We are all guilty of viewing challenges through our own particular lens, assessing impacts and targets based on our own particular silo. But this simply does not work for water.

Water does not respect the boundaries of our administrative systems or the borders of national governments. There are between 250 and 275 transboundary river basins, and at least as many transboundary aquifers globally, yet only 6 of these aquifers have international legal structures that encourage co-operation. Water cannot be siphoned off into its own department, but rather water planning must be a central plank to every policy decision by every department – be that on housing, environment, business or infrastructure. Perhaps even more importantly, these decisions must be consistently reviewed and maintained if they are to have any chance of success. Decisions on water planning can start with good intentions but come unstuck when they are gradually shunted to the bottom of the priority list as time goes on.

We have seen that even when coherent water policies are decided at the top, they often are not cascaded down consistently to the actors on the ground. If the myriad stakeholders in a water landscape aren’t brought in at the earliest possible stage to have a voice in assessing the practicalities and application of policy, it is unlikely to stick. Initiatives like the International Water Stewardship Programme (IWaSP) and WWF’s Water Stewardship Programme are vital in helping the private sector to collaborate with government departments, other businesses, NGOs and communities across boundaries and borders to protect shared freshwater resources.

Water is infinitely challenging to measure, monitor or mediate. To mitigate these risks, we need action now both to reduce our own water consumption and to ensure that other players within our water landscapes are practising responsible water stewardship – and if we wait for policy-makers to make the first move, it may be too late.

2. What are your focus areas for 2016?

It is clear that our greatest water risks lie outside our direct operations, in our 3rd party supply chains. So it is no surprise that by far the greatest area of focus is to understand where exactly those water risks exist and implement actions on the ground to address those risks. We shall continue to utilise technology and data sources such as the World Resources Institute (WRI) Aqueduct Tool to support us in assessing agricultural exposure to water stress.

From a smallholder perspective our major focus will be to expand our work on improving water management practices, including better irrigation, new water retention techniques for soils and increasing the number of farmers we train as part of our wider implementation programmes on Climate Smart Agriculture.

Olam’s farms and plantations will continue to improve their water efficiency practices on the ground. In addition we will use the Olam Plantations and Farming ‘Community of Practice’ to share knowledge and leading practices on water management subjects, such as irrigation, water harvesting and soil erosion across our operations. We are also exploring new technologies for the future.

Across Olam’s portfolio of factories the Global Engineering Group of the Manufacturing and Technical Services Function will continue to develop and execute Plant Improvement Plans to drive water and wastewater efficiencies.

We will participate in, or if necessary, develop water stewardship programmes to create multi-stakeholder approaches to tackle the broader challenges outside of our operational boundaries when we see risks in our water catchment areas. The involvement of our Californian team as a founder member of the California Water Action Collaborative is a good example of such an approach.

Finally, we will work to identify and implement the necessary solutions to WASH challenges in our farming and plantation operations to deliver not only against our own objective but to contribute towards SDG 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

Image: Chris Brown (centre) and Moray McLeish of the CR&S Function in Madhya Pradesh, India, with colleagues from Olam’s sugar team, and local sugar farmers to see and hear about the improvements achieved in the Madhushree project.

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