Testing the water

Andy Green gives an overview of the Alliance for Water Stewardship’s updated standard, which aims to measure and improve the sustainability of businesses’ water use

Most of us in the UK take access to free, clean water for granted. We’re lucky to have an abundance of water and need only turn on the tap to use it. This is not the case elsewhere: one in nine people worldwide lacks access to safe water, and one in three doesn’t have access to toilet facilities.

As we find ourselves in the middle of a global water crisis, companies are beginning to recognise that sustainable use of water – and access to water and sanitation for workers who live in the surrounding areas – is better for not just society, but also for the environment and for business. 

Water impacts every business in some way. Water challenges can be found in all countries, whether it’s protecting water quality in Scotland, where it is a key economic resource, or dealing with chronic shortages and widespread drought in Australia. While individual use can be concerning, businesses using lots of water – or depositing waste into water – need to consider how this impacts their local area, communities and the wider world.

Alliance for Water Stewardship

With this in mind, the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) created a standard to allow businesses to achieve certification on this issue. Set up in 2009, AWS is a global membership-based collaboration; it connects organisations dedicated to promoting use of freshwater in a way that is socially, economically and environmentally beneficial to all. 

The AWS standard provides a framework for major water users to understand water usage and impact, and to work collaboratively and transparently for sustainable water management within a catchment context. It helps companies manage their water usage in a holistic, responsible way, and ensures they meet demands from all water users – from nature to business. To achieve certification, businesses must work progressively to achieve four outcomes: sustainable water balance, good water quality status, important water-related areas, and good water governance.

On World Water Day (22 March), AWS launched an updated version of the standard, which includes a new, fifth outcome – safe water, sanitation and hygiene for all (WASH). This is a global initiative that aims to enshrine water sanitation as a basic human right. It also brings the standard more in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6, which pledges sustainably managed water and sanitation for all by 2030. The inclusion of a dedicated outcome on WASH offers a significant opportunity to drive improved access to water, sanitation and good hygiene for vulnerable or marginalised communities, as well as to promote economic and social development.
For organisations using a lot of water, the certification process ticks the box from a social corporate responsibility perspective and also creates a more efficient business. We work closely with Australia’s leading poultry producer, Inghams Group Limited, which went through a re-certification audit last year and achieved the world’s first Platinum AWS certification. This demonstrates a world-leading commitment to water management and sustainability, going above and beyond requirements.

The certification brought the business a number of benefits, with positive feedback from both employees and customers. It also helped make the business case for upgrading plants to advanced water treatment, which enabled them to reuse more than 70% of their water supply, reducing demand for the mains water.

Looking to the future

The AWS is making good progress, with more industries starting to take notice – particularly the beverage and pharmaceutical waste industries. However, this standard is a voluntary one, and for many businesses there is not a compelling enough reason to act. AWS certification is increasingly popular in areas where water scarcity is a big issue, such as in south-east Australia, but in places where the water crisis is less obvious, awareness of the issues and the need for certification is relatively low. 

A comparable certification standard is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC®). Public concern about the world’s forests and timber resource is high, so despite this standard also being voluntary, many products using timber or paper as a material are FSC certified – customers expect it. For certification to work, the market needs to demand it, and there is currently not enough understanding around water issues for this to be the case.

During the past year, interest in AWS has increased, and work currently being undertaken on pharmaceutical waste could be a game-changer ¬– especially in the UK. The AWS standard is a holistic one, taking into consideration not just the business, but also the surrounding catchment. This means the impact on other users of the water source, both upstream and downstream, must always be accounted for, whether it is local communities, plants or animals. Any water that is taken away or returned to the system must be sustainable and good quality.

The issues with pharmaceutical waste relate to contamination of the water source from both businesses and individuals. If drugs are being disposed of down a toilet, or being released back into water naturally as waste, the toxicity of the drugs remains and enters the water stream. With resistance to antibiotics an escalating issue, and suggestions that oestrogen levels in the sea caused by the birth control pill are causing genetic changes in fish, this is something we should all be concerned about.

Policy change
Despite the progress made in recent years, we’re not progressing fast enough to ensure that everyone will have access to clean, safe water by 2030. The AWS standard with its WASH-focused outcome provides a framework to support business’ contribution to this agenda, as well as on many other issues relating to freshwater use around the world. However, to give businesses more of an incentive to address water challenges and ensure that their water stewardship is sustainable, the issue may need more input from a government level. We’ve seen success in China and Peru, where the state government have taken action on a water pollution issue by incentivising sites to become certified – perhaps we should be seeing this globally. 
A crucial element of the AWS standard is commitment from the top of the business, with a requirement for the senior management team to lead, inspire and encourage others to buy into it. If we were to undertake an audit and were not convinced that there was adequate input from the top, we would have a fundamental issue with the certification process. And while this makes sense from a business perspective, it also makes sense from a societal perspective. 

Water is crucial for sustainable development and for human survival itself. Major water users, governments, cities and citizens need to work together to protect this vital resource.


Andy Green is business development director at BM TRADA, which offers independent certification, inspection, training and technical services.


Image credit | Igham's


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