I first heard the words “meeting under the mango tree” as a euphemism for having a predictable, easy to access process for enabling community members to raise issues and concerns in a safe and familiar place.  There is no fixed agenda and no one-size-fits-all for these exchanges. With one company we set up drop-in centres in each local village with a designated community officer in attendance everyday. Another made it known that a company person would be available “under the mango tree” for two hours every market day. I was hoping this blog would achieve something similar – the regular, free and open sharing of ideas and experiences. It hasn't worked so I'm taking a break and having a bit of a rethink. In the meantime I'll be reposting a "best of" selection from time to time.

Water Security - difficult to do well

Responsible Business Management |  15 October 2023

I can’t think of one site I’ve worked on or visited that doesn’t provide some level of support to improving the availability of clean water and better sanitation. It is easy to cut the cloth to fit the available resources, although it must be said this is an area where it is easy to under-estimate the amount of effort to create long lasting behaviour change which goes far beyond simply providing a borehole or building a toilet and hoping for the best, which unfortunately it is an approach taken by many companies, big and small...

Water-stress, particularly during dry seasons is a high-risk area for companies and communities alike. For companies the risks include community unrest and direct action (as an extreme expression of dissatisfaction), higher levels of  absenteeism (company employees spending time queuing for water for their families) and difficulty attracting and retaining employees due to the lack of essential services.

A bigger concern should be the effect on communities. It is widely recognised within the international development sector that water scarcity, poor water quality and inadequate sanitation negatively impact food security, livelihood choices and educational opportunities for poor families - without clean water, you can’t stay healthy. If you can’t stay healthy, you can’t work or attend school. You can’t build a home. You can’t grow food, and you can’t provide for your family. According to the United Nations, as much as 80 percent of illnesses and deaths in the developing world are caused by waterborne diseases. Lack of clean water and sanitation also has a massive effect on student enrolment. While it is pretty much self-evident that students can’t attend school when they are  sick it is maybe less intuitive that girls in sub-Saharan Africa are twice as likely to gather water for the family than boys and all that time spent gathering water is time not spent in school, gaining the knowledge and skilled needed to give the girls a chance to break out of poverty. When talking growing food, in addition to being more difficult to plant and harvest crops when you are sick it is more difficult to grow healthy crops with dirty water. It also takes large amounts of water - 70 percent of global water usage is used for agriculture and irrigation, compared with the 10 percent used for domestic purposes.

It follows that improving access to water for both personal and agricultural use should lead to improvements in these other areas (or at the very least provide an environment that is more conducive to improvements being possible). Clearly this is an important issue for companies to consider, but just what can they or should they do?

If there is a lesson to be learned from history it is that infrastructure is easy, attitude and behaviour change is difficult – and infrastructure has no value in the absence of attitude and behaviour change. So, if a company does choose to support community and local government water-targeting activities and programmes it is essential that whatever it does has a strong behaviour change component. If this is absent, it is highly likely that the company investment will fail.

Broadly speaking there are three opportunities where companies can play their part – 1) reducing wastage and contamination of existing water sources, 2) increasing the availability of clean water – through improved distribution and / or additional sources and 3) improving the efficiency of water use in agriculture, each of which has a wide range of potential interventions that could be considered, with both supported by an education / behaviour change element.

With respect to water supply, boreholes, rainwater collection and surface water dams can all increase the quantity available; efficient water use is about reducing wastage while reducing contamination is for the most part about improving sanitation practices to avoid or reduce preventable water and sanitation-related diarrheal diseases. Water and Sanitation (WATSAN) is a specialised field and has received lots of international attention and funding over many years. One result is that many countries have lots of local (in-country) expertise, reducing the challenge for companies to one of setting limits and finding good partner(s). It is also important to keep in mind that there might well be a community-based water management committee that simply needs a little bit of a lift.

With the agricultural interventions, the idea is that by reducing run-off, increasing water penetration and improving the moisture holding capacity of soils, building the quality of the soil using proven sustainable farming techniques and improving cropping, animal husbandry and aquaculture practices it will be possible to boost both the quantity and quality of agricultural production, with direct flow-on to both food production and income generation.

With water at a premium it is incumbent on companies to be efficient with its use of what is a shared resource. This suggests that the company needs to actively manage its water consumption through efficient use, maximising recycling and minimising wastage. It will also need to minimise mine-related pollution by eliminating dumping and release of hazardous chemicals and materialsa and avoiding the release of untreated wastewater.

When all is said and done, water security is a bit of a wicked problem with no simple solution!


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