One of the greatest mystic poets of all times, Maulana Jalauldin Rumi, deftly characterized the virtue of water: The water said to the dirty one, “Come here.” The dirty one said, “I am too ashamed.” The water replied, “How will your shame be washed away without me?”

Today, shame is not the only undesirable commodity being washed away with water. The free flowing rivers of yesteryears have now been reduced to sewage channels concealing dirty secrets of the industrial revolution. In an effort to keep the modern economy afloat, water has become the source and sink of every single development activity. Hazardous chemicals, toxic waste and poisonous residue from agricultural runoff as well as industrial processes are all disposed of, copiously and unapologetically, into open water courses.

As a matter of fact, water issues are multidimensional and complex. On one hand, there is an issue of resource replenishment. When excessive quantities of water are extracted without any deference to the levels at which aquifers are recharged naturally, the natural water balance is perturbed, triggering a steep decline in water levels. On the other hand lies the challenge of balancing water needs and allocating water proportionately among different sectors. The agricultural sector mostly relies on water inefficient practices, while the industrial sector is far removed from boosting its water productivity to the point where water risks may be mitigated. At the base of these issues is the formidable task of putting together and implementing an effective water strategy, which successive governments have failed to do. that water scarcity is recognized as a threat to global security, efforts to mitigate the risks have been restrained or only halfhearted at best. The terms water security and water crisis have been thrown into print and electronic media interchangeably and so repetitively that the enormity of the situation seems to have been reduced to mere background clamour.

Economic development of the modern world has spurred on an uninhibited dependence on water. Water is a critical constituent in all sorts of manufacturing and industrial processes in Pakistan’s small and medium enterprises. While these businesses invest millions in procuring other raw material, in the absence of stringent regulations, water regrettably remains a free and unaccounted for resource. This has given businesses a free reign to exploit water resources eliciting the conundrum of opportunity cost. As excessive quantities of water are diverted towards fulfilling business and commercial interests, access to safe drinking water for communities diminishes. This disparity is even more pronounced in marginal communities.

Given the current situation, is there any winning in the water business? In order to sustainably manage water resources, there has been a mounting interest in exploring ways to conserve water. The key is to reduce water use and promote recycling of water. For decades, international companies with sprawling businesses have blatantly ravaged natural resources without any recompense. However, in the face of the looming water crisis and escalating public pressure, these global chains are now gravitating towards meeting their revenue goals with less social and environmental implications. Due to fluctuating water levels throughout the world, businesses have been exposed to a medley of water risks. These risks vary from operational risks, threatening the sustainability of businesses, to regulatory ones where exploitation of water resources may lead to termination of operating licenses. Besides, controversies over competing water resources in an area of limited water availability can potentially tarnish the brand image of a business, leading to massive financial losses. Thus, a motivation to invest in water conservation does not stem from a spirit of altruism, but from a business case with demonstrated commercial value.

In 2017, the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), an organization facilitating companies in tracking their environmental impacts through a global disclosure system, published a Global Water Report documenting an astounding increase of 193 per cent in businesses that have ventured into water stewardship and water conservation practices. Moreover, companies from across the world pledged around US$ 23.4 billion to be invested in over 1,000 projects in 91 countries to tackle the issue of water scarcity. This is a promising step towards a water secure future, but still not enough. According to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a whopping US$ 6.4 trillion worth of investment is required by 2030 to prevent water resources from running dry.

Many global businesses such as H&M, Nike, Levi Strauss & Co. and others are now integrating water conservation into their organizational policies and have stipulated that their suppliers reduce their water footprint. The supply chains of international businesses mainly consist of small and medium enterprises spread out in different parts of Asia. In fact, 40 per cent of Levi’s supply is outsourced to Pakistani suppliers. WWF-Pakistan has advocated the approach of Integrated Water Resource Management in the country, to help protect our shared freshwater resources with a collaborative approach between all the concerned stakeholders.

Levi’s is a well-known apparel and denim manufacturing company with presence in more than 100 countries and 500 functional stores worldwide. One of the leading risks that the company faces today is that of water scarcity in regions where its suppliers are located. This became the impetus to launch the Water<Less programme a few years ago, an initiative aiming to reduce consumption of water throughout the manufacturing process of Levi’s denim products. The Water<Less programme outlines 21 water saving techniques that can be put into practice from garment finishing processes to dyeing. These techniques range from combining one or two wet processes, eliminating redundant washing steps, designing less water intensive finishes to recycling water. In tandem with these techniques, Levi’s has also provided its suppliers with a list of in-house water quality standards and Global Effluent Requirements (GER) which must be met during the manufacturing process. Suppliers are now required to share their flow meter readings and audit reports conducted by an independent third-party to validate their compliance with the standards. The company also requires industries under its contract to recycle 20 per cent of treated water for in-house purposes such as cooling and landscaping. The brand claims to have saved around three billion litres of water as of 2019 through its Water<Less initiative setting forth an exceptional example of how global businesses can steer a positive change.

The challenge to meet the requirements of international buyers has prompted manufacturers to reduce their water footprint. However, it is only one part of the equation to achieve long term sustainability of water resources. The other half has to be played by local governments. In order to enable small and medium enterprises to conserve water resources, the government will have to offer incentives such as interest-free loans and financial assistance programmes, establishing caps on water use and launching nationwide awareness campaigns to mitigate underlying risks. Most of all, there is a need to lay down effective regulations that safeguard the interests of all stakeholders and help conserve water for future generations.

Saba Dar is an environment enthusiast.