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2013 marks the United Nations’ International Year of Water Cooperation with the objective of raising awareness on collaborative water management strategies and initiatives. Water is a vital resource in Canada; it is linked to the health of the nation, its environment and its economy. Environment Canada estimates that water resources contribute between $7.5 billion and $23 billion to the Canadian economy annually. In a 2012 RBC Water Attitudes poll 40 per cent of respondents agreed that it is Canada’s most valuable natural resource. Canada’s surface water resources are estimated to account for seven per cent of the world’s renewable water supply and 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater supply. However, according to the Conference Board of Canada, we rank 15th out of 16 countries assessed for water withdrawals—with industry as the largest water-user. The need for improved water management is glaring.

In industry, water is used as a raw material, a coolant, a solvent, a transport agent, and as a source of energy. Other than thermal power (60 per cent), the largest industrial users of water are the manufacturing (18.5 per cent), agriculture (8 per cent), mining (4 per cent) sectors. The oil sands sector has also grown to become a large user of water, using as much water as the residential use of 1.7 million Canadians in 2011. Despite representing the highest users of water in Canada, the thermal power generation, manufacturing and mining industries are not among the highest consumers since approximately 90 per cent of water withdrawn is returned to waterways. Agriculture, on the other hand, is the largest consumer of water in Canada; approximately 70 per cent of the water used is consumed, primarily through crop irrigation. As such, water availability is key to food manufacturing.

Given the varied, yet critical, water challenges faced by Canadian industries, initiatives must be taken by regulators and companies to better manage water use and consumption. Though Canada’s water is managed at a provincial level, the country’s federal water policy is considered outdated and insufficient to address modern challenges such as climate change. Environment Canada argues that water is not priced efficiently in Canada, with many municipalities reportedly failing to capture the cost of water maintenance in its pricing, thereby failing to incite cost-based conservation. Moreover, as competition for water increases, there is concern over water being transitioned into a commodity subject to privatization and cross-border trade. A stronger regulatory system could improve water conservation and management, mitigating the potential negative impacts of under-priced water exports.

By circumventing the slow pace of regulation, industry can play a key role in tackling water issues. The first step for companies must be to assess their own water risk in order to make informed decisions about what strategies are required and where efforts must be focused. These strategies will vary, depending on the company, its industry and the region in which it operates. For example, companies operating in the food and beverage industry will need to consider how water scarcity impacts irrigation, crop cycles and product development. Companies in the extractives industries need to consider the quality of discharged water—a byproduct of operations. Once water-related risks have been determined, companies can establish unique mitigation strategies.

A number of the companies included on Sustainalytics and Maclean’s 2013 list of the 50 Most Socially Responsible Corporations have taken steps to assess their water-related risks. Molson Coors Brewing Company, for example, conducted watershed assessments for each of its brewery locations, evaluating existing water use, water demands and supply. The assessments helped determine long-range risks with regards to water availability and quality. Similarly, Kellogg has performed water footprint assessments to determine where water is used and how changes can be made. Agriculture accounts for more than 95 per cent of the water used during the lifecycle of several of the company’s cereals. Kellogg has a goal to reduce its water usage by 15-20 per cent, per tonne of food produced by 2015, using 2005 as its baseline year.

Other companies on the 2013 list have implemented industry-leading practices around water management at their own operations. Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan has implemented several projects to conserve water and in 2012, 90 per cent of the fresh water used for operations was recycled. Further, at Cenovus’ oil sands operations, fresh water from underground aquifers constitutes less than five per cent of water used. The remainder is salt water that cannot be used for agriculture or drinking.

Additionally, companies are going beyond their own operations to improve water management throughout their supply chains. For example, Nike encourages supplier adherence to high water quality standards. The Nike Water Program encompasses over 400 suppliers and collects production, water use, and discharge data. Suppliers are assessed based on their adherence to water quality guidelines. Nike is further developing metrics to evaluate water use and improve water management.

Companies like Zara are also working to promote better water management across industries. Zara has joined a collaborative response to water-related challenges as a signatory to the CEO Water Mandate, a United Nations initiative to support companies in the development, implementation and disclosure of their water-related strategies and solutions.

Other companies have developed products to improve water management. IBM created the “WaterWatchers” app for mobile devices in South Africa to report water leaks, faulty water pipes and conditions of water canals. The data will be used to identify challenges to the country’s water distribution systems. General Electric, through its ecomagination program, is currently working with partners to develop more cost-effective strategies to recover and reuse water from hydraulic fracturing operations.

Although leading industry players—including some of those highlighted in the Sustainalytics and Maclean’s 2013 list of the 50 Most Socially Responsible Corporations—have taken the initiative to implement innovative best practices to assess and manage water related risks, a more proactive approach to water management is lacking in Canada. A widespread movement from both the corporate and regulatory side is still needed. In the spirit of the United Nations’ International Year of Water Cooperation, a collaborative approach, uniting industry, civil society and government should be considered to align the diverse needs of stakeholders while addressing the shared challenges faced in protecting Canada’s most valuable natural resource.