I am delighted to work for BITC and one of the main reasons for this is that I get to work on UK water issues. People are always surprised when I tell them this, especially as previously my work has included building piped water systems in Northern Kenya or managing water pollution along the Yangtze in China. That’s where the real problem is, right? We don’t have water problems in the UK. Wrong.
But water is an issue everywhere in the world, and it is a pressing one in the UK. We are a small island with a lot of people and that puts pressure on our natural resources. In 2012 south east England was faced with such a severe drought that contingency plans were being made to put standpipes in London, and both the south and north of the country faced devastating floods, in 2014 and 2015 respectively.
Additionally, we are part of a global community that is increasingly connected through its markets and faces the collective issues of climate change and environmental degradation. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the challenges we face as a global community. We face rapidly changing social, political, economic and environmental contexts, and as we have experienced in the UK this year, it is sometimes hard to keep up.
So, water is a global issue, which has very local consequences. Fortunately, to counter this we have a global level agreement that requires local action. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), approved by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 to replace the previous Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), recognise water as such pivotal importance that it was given its own goal, which aims to address issues from clean drinking water to water scarcity.
Importantly, the SDGs require every single UN country to take action on its 17 goals, unlike the MDGs, which were very focused on the efforts of developing countries. And these goals recognise that water cannot be tackled independently, but that there is an interdependency between it and the other 16 goals such as biodiversity, forests, gender and sustainable growth.
With water, negative impacts are often very pronounced, in the form of floods and droughts, while positives are often undervalued, such as the privilege of having safe drinking water from a tap. But I remain an optimist. Agreements such as the SDGs and legislation such as the EU Water Framework Directive have driven marked improvements in water management at a global and national level. Never before have we been so ambitious in our use and standards for UK waterways.
However, change must be driven with both carrot and stick. Governments can drive the ‘stick’ of regulation but society must innovate a range of ‘carrots’ that can embed long lasting change. When I worked on global water issues we frequently talked about governance, meaning the importance of national governments engaging in natural resource management. But governance can be simply the ‘rule of conduct’, setting out how stakeholders organise themselves to achieve the highest standards of service delivery.
In the UK we are lucky to have guiding legislation which is enforced through regulation – the stick - but what are the carrots? How do stakeholders organise themselves for optimal environmental and business services?
Businesses have the capacity to play the role of innovator in water management and drive the incentives that support strong governance. But it isn’t just about businesses acting alone, collaboration is vital.
Throughout the UK farmers, communities, business and government are working together to improve river catchments. This is not simply treating water but looking after the whole landscape to improve land, soil and habitats. BITC plays an important role in supporting collaboration, challenging businesses to address environmental issues as part of their core work. One example is the work BITC is currently carrying on with businesses in the food and drinks sector to support farmers in their supply chain to improve environmental practices at a farm level.
We know that following the vote to leave Europe the UK is set to undergo drastic changes. Our legal frameworks for managing water are embedded in EU legislation. The UK government must not go back on our commitments to improving the environment and we will need a new water framework to which we can work. Businesses can play a vital role in this period or transition, in communicating to the UK government the importance of water governance, but also in identifying ways in which they can collaborate to support new ways of working.
Working with BITC, our businesses have taken innovative approaches to these challenges such as optimising new technologies or changing pricing structures to incentivise good environmental practice. This isn’t just about businesses doing the right thing, it is about collaborating for smart growth in a way that addresses our current and future environmental challenges.
Kate Spooner is BITC’s new Head of Water, joining us after over a decade working on water issues across the globe. She will be working with companies to provide innovative solutions to UK water challenges, including supporting healthy ecosystems in the river catchments and reducing water risks in cities.