Corporate India Marching Against the Water Crisis

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Sridhar Sarathy

‘Water has become a global crisis’, ‘India is running out of water’, ‘groundwater levels are declining’ – in the last two years these phrases and much more have become a part of every intellectual’s conversation around the environment. According to the United Nations World Water Development Report, currently, almost 47 per cent of the global population lives in areas that suffer an abnormal water shortage for at least one month a year. This number is expected to rise to 57 per cent by 2050. The demand for water is increasing at an exponential speed due to growing personal and industrial usage of the resource.

While world leaders globally collect on an annual basis to discuss actions they have taken against climate change – closer to home, India’s Corporate players are doing their fair share in leading the crusade against the water crisis.

Inception and Initiation

It all started in June 2019 when Chennai city officials declared a ‘day zero’ or the day when the city has run out of all its water resources. Though this did not happen overnight, deficient monsoons over the last two years and systematic water exploitation by city inhabitants led to this deficiency. Before this event, a ‘water crisis’ was only limited to the rural areas in India. Some districts were categorised as ‘water-stressed’ and an urban individual could well imagine people in these districts walking miles in the summer heat to get a pot full of water. However, the Chennai water crisis jolted these urbanised individuals back to reality. The water crisis in the country is for real and it was soon approaching the ‘water sufficient’ areas as well. Thus, now with the alarming rate at which population in India is increasing, there is always a threat that the water reserves of the country may not be enough to fulfil the needs of all citizens.

With the global pandemic now setting into the country with leaps and bounds, it is bound to stress the already depleting water resources of India as well. This is also the ideal time for India Inc to step in. Keeping individual consumption aside, large companies in India have also held the baton for indiscriminate usage of water.

To add damage to the destruction, the new decade started with a series of natural disasters – from the Australian bushfires to a global pandemic that shook the world. Considering one of the major precautions to avoid this deadly pandemic is ‘washing hands for 20 seconds’, it has the potential of taking the global water crisis to a whole new level. With every individual in over 30+ countries in the world washing their hands for 20 seconds more than 4-5 times per day – the water levels can reach an unfathomable low. While the official figures for the total damage caused by the pandemic are uncertain currently, it is sure to have a disturbing impact on the global water levels as well.

With the global pandemic now setting into the country with leaps and bounds, it is bound to stress the already depleting water resources of India as well. This is also the ideal time for India Inc to step in. Keeping individual consumption aside, large companies in India have also held the baton for indiscriminate usage of water. From sourcing to polluting groundwater resources, companies have had a free run at water resources often flouting pollution norms and environmental laws in the bidding. Hence, when the water shortage arrived, it was pertinent to the country’s Corporate houses to step up and mitigate the crisis.  

What is Corporate India doing?

Companies have taken exponential measures in striding up their efforts for water conservation. Several companies in India, from textiles to consumers have seen continuous innovation to become water-efficient and create products that use less water. While this is at a consumer level, at an industrial level, companies are using technology and digitisation in every possible way to make sure their dependency on the water is brought down to the bare minimum. Companies have also actively started conducting a water footprint audit which studies the use and reuse of water and throws insights on how processes can be streamlined to use the resources efficiently. Globally, companies like Coca-Cola, Abbott, General Electric, IBM and Kraft have adopted various processes, organisation-wide, to check and control the usage of water in business and organisational activities.

At the organisational level, companies have adopted various measures to control their water usage and contribute to the bigger goal. Along with water audits, Corporates are also consciously installing systems that regulate their internal water usage. Educating employees to use water responsibly and installing taps and faucets that go ‘low flow’ are also some initiatives that are seen across companies. As employee engagement initiatives, some companies also appoint water managers or water champions who oversee the use and abuse of water in the organisation.

Further, as per the Companies Act, 2013, every company whose net worth, net profit or turnover is over the prescribed threshold has to spend a minimum of two per cent of its average net profits of the last three years into activities which showcase the company’s responsibility towards the environment or society. Hence, since mandated by law, Indian companies have also stepped up their social and environmental attempts towards this cause; from watershed management projects to water advocacy – Indian companies have a footprint in every possible domain of water.

The most remarkable initiatives amongst these are the watershed management projects undertaken by Corporates in water-stressed districts in different States. Corporates have tied up with leading institutions of India to set up watershed management, rainwater harvesting, and groundwater management plants.

From visiting water-stressed areas and studying the on-ground situation there to implementing projects involving the local communities – the work done by India Inc is noteworthy. The CSR efforts of Indian companies towards water rehabilitation has resulted in uplifting more than lakhs of lives and providing access to potable drinking water to more than a million people. On studying annual reports of NIFTY 50 companies by a leading CSR foundation – out of a total of INR 750 Crore, a median amount of INR 6.7 Crore was spent on water-related causes totalling to 12 per cent of overall CSR spend.

The most remarkable initiatives amongst these are the watershed management projects undertaken by Corporates in water-stressed districts in different States. For instance, in districts like Palghar, Jawahar and Vikramgarh in Maharashtra, most people still lack access to clean drinking water or water for sanitation purposes. The major reason for these issues is the frequent droughts in the area and poor management of rainwater. In these water-stressed districts, Corporates have tied up with leading institutions of India to set up watershed management, rainwater harvesting, and groundwater management plants. These projects have helped people in this district overcome their short term water needs as well as generate employment for the villagers.

To facilitate smooth operations of these projects and ensure that their continuity is hassle-free, companies have employed state-of-the-art sophisticated technology at these locations. They have also set up internal programmes where, as part of their CSR goals, active employees of the company have to go to these locations and volunteer with the local community.

With the successful initiatives in Maharashtra now showing results, these water management projects are also taken to other stressed districts of the country like Rajasthan, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu etc.

Corporates are also recruiting specialised teams that meet and engage with local communities regularly. These specialised teams are educating villagers on prudent water practices and helping them minimise water usage. Similar sessions are also hosted by companies for their employees to ensure there is unnecessary wastage of water. Further, companies are also actively researching the possibility of implementing nature-based solutions like dry toilets to ease the pressure from water resources.

While water as a natural resource is insurmountable and irreplaceable to mankind, it is also looked at by most business-heads as an impact multiplier. That is an investment which on its own, is beneficial as well as makes other investments like agriculture, livestock, healthcare and others more effective.

Water shortage is real, and though it may impact individual lives at various stages, it has the capability of pinching Corporates today and getting business to a standstill. Thus, it is the responsibility of every company and every individual at their level to make an earnest contribution in protecting this valuable resource.

Sridhar Sarathy is Senior Vice President – L&D, Engagement & CSR, Human Resources, Tata Capital.