The players tackling the business world’s complex relationship with water

A dried-out part of Lake Koronia, Greece.
A dried-out part of Lake Koronia, Greece.
Image: REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis
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Tackling the challenges of the business and investment world’s complex relationship with water isn’t easy, but it’s getting more popular. Over the past two decades, a number of advisors, experts, and would-be influencers has crowded into the space to aid and pressure corporate leaders on water management. Here are some of the key groups and players.

The NGOs

Non-governmental organizations, most of them focused on some variation of sustainability, have set corporations firmly in their sights. They’ve devised various ways to help companies identify and manage water-related risks and partnered with them to address local watershed issues. What they really want is for companies to pressure governments for better local watershed management. They’re nothing if not persistent. If you’re a multinational that uses much water, you probably encounter them.

World Resources Institute

An environmental think tank, WRI runs the popular Aqueduct toolset, which includes a popular heat map that’s used by companies to screen for water stress down to a specific address. It also ranks individual countries’ water-stress levels. Aqueduct is well-used, but the real goal is to engage companies to be more responsible water stewards in the hopes best practices will spread through watershed supply chains. That would improve life for everyone.

World Wildlife Fund

As the name implies, protecting biodiversity is the WWF’s primary mission. When it comes to water, there’s a special focus on river, lake, and wetland health—areas that just happen to overlap significantly with corporate activities. Recognizing that, the WFF has made itself a go-to resource for information on the relationship between business and water. It runs a popular water risk filter tool that boasts maps and 32 data layers to help determine risks in corporate operations and respond with “contextually appropriate” actions. WWF also publishes interesting, wonky reports on the intersection of business and water around the world, and presses companies to work with local communities to address risks.

The Nature Conservancy

Perhaps best known as a big landowner—it preserves more than 103 million acres of land in its natural state—TNC puts money into the water side of its environmental mission, as well. The organization runs more than 100 marine conservation projects around the world and operates “Water Sharing Investment Partnerships,” which encourage social investors to put money into shared water rights and then sell or lease those rights to farmers and cities. Significantly, TNC also supports innovation through the Techstars program, an accelerator that provides funding, mentoring and networking for early-stage companies with promising technology solutions to water-scarcity and –quality problems.

CEO Water Mandate

The Mandate partners with the UN to mobilize a “critical mass” of global business leaders to address the water challenges by having them sign a pledge—something 166 large companies have thus far done. Signers agree to pursue six key areas to improve their water stewardship—including their own operations, supply chains and public policy—and report back annually. The Mandate also offers publications and tutorials, including a “Water Stewardship 101” course that lays out the hows, whats and whys for businesses to get more hands-on managing water resources.

The investment world

Social investors are focusing more attention on water, and so are some of those more concerned with the financial implications of operating in water-stressed regions. Shining light on how corporations manage the physical, regulatory, and reputational water risks of their operations, and pressing for improvements, is an effective backdoor way to gain influence—especially if it could affect share prices.


CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) has branched beyond its carbon roots. The organization presses companies and institutional investors to disclose actions on water and other sustainability issues. It publishes regular reports on its findings—including a 2018 water report that included disclosures from more than 2,000 companies and investors. “Once you measure your performance and identify a set of targets, you create the conditions to achieve them,” CDP’s website says.


Ceres is about advancing “sustainability leadership” at the top levels of corporations, and it’s gotten good at it. The nonprofit’s membership rolls include 175 institutional investors that manage a combined $26 trillion and are concerned not only about the social effects of the world’s water troubles, but also the financial effects on investee companies. So yeah, there’s some influence there.

Working with shareholders means focusing on boards of directors. A November report, for example, calls on boards to “explicitly oversee” environmental risks to confront “a growing climate and water crisis.”

The group isn’t above calling out companies. An October report ranks 40 large food-and-beverage companies numerically on several key water-risk management categories, including governance and strategy, direct operations and supply chains. (The top three are Unilever, Nestle and General Mills; the bottom three include Pilgrim’s Pride, Monster Beverage and Sanderson Farms.)

“The raters and rankers are important,” says Jeff Hanratty, General Mills’ applied sustainability manager. “Our customers care. Our shareholders care. It’s important to be recognized for your good work.”

Water Asset Management

Solving big problems can be profitable. That’s what Matthew Diserio, president of Water Asset Management, a $65 million asset manager, is betting on. His firm is among a handful that invests in companies, assets, and equities solely related to water quality and supply.

Diserio says we’re on the cusp of a “50-year bull market” in water. The key to fueling greater investment is solid regulatory schemes. “Capital seeks what we call TLC—transparency, long-term return potential, and regulatory certainty.” Water is getting there.

Equarius Risk Analytics

There’s innovation in pretty much every other endeavor, so why not gauging water risks as a variable for investing in a company’s stock? That’s the idea behind Equarius Risk Analytics, a startup launched by University of Michigan engineering professor Peter Adrianes. Equarius has built an algorithm for index funds that measures company-specific factors like facilities’ access to water, regulatory risks, water intensity per dollar of revenue generated, and more to generate a water-risk “volatility premium.”

“I’m convinced that it won’t be long before water is priced into a company’s share price,” Adriaens says.

Corporate leaders

The rubber hits the road at the place where water-intensive corporate operations meet up with local water-quality and –quantity issues. Managing those risks effectively varies significantly by industry and location, and remains a work in progress. Some companies are pushing the envelope more than others. Notable examples include:

AB InBev

Food-and-beverage companies are huge water users. AB InBev CEO Carlos Brito’s approach to managing the resource is driven by a simple credo: “No water, no beer.” The brewer of Budweiser and other brands sources the core ingredient for its products locally in plants around the world, 37 of which are located in high water-stress areas.

AB InBev’s goal is to see “measurable improvement” in water availability and quality in all of those communities by 2025. To that end, it has partnered with a venture fund to create the 100+Accelerator, which provides grants to early-stage firms that are focused on sustainability issues, including water.

“Water is our business,” Brito told attendees at a September sustainability conference. “We count every drop of it.”

Levi Strauss

Apparel companies depend on local farmers for cotton and other raw materials. To better understand the risks, Levi Strauss recently assessed how much water is used by a pair of jeans over its life cycle and came up with 1,000 gallons. Sixty-eight percent of that total comes from local farmers growing cotton. To make its supply chain more reliable, it told suppliers that they need to reduce their water use 50% by 2025 or risk losing its business.


You might not think of technology firms as big users of water, but they often are. Large wafer-fab plants in China, for example, can consume more than 150 million gallons of water a month. Microsoft’s usage isn’t that extreme, but it still invests in technologies that recycle cooling water for its data centers and other facilities.

It also invests in various water-stewardship initiatives in places where it has operations, from Hyderabad, Pakistan, where it’s working with an NGO to improve local water supplies, to Cheyenne, Wyoming where it’s actively supporting the decommissioning of an eight-mile stretch of road as a way to reduce sediment runoff and promote groundwater recharge.

“We recognize that we’re consuming water in these water-stressed areas and we’re making the investment to minimize our impact,” says Paul Fleming, Microsoft’s water program manager.

Procter & Gamble

A consumer goods giant, P&G is intent on turning the lemons of water stress into lemonade with innovative products that confront the demand side of the issue. In 2018, it dispatched researchers to study consumers in Cape Town during eight months of water rationing. The result, new “waterless” shampoos and detergents, which the company intends to roll out in other markets as water shortages increase.

“Water scarcity can be a great driver for innovation,” Virginie Helias said at a recent sustainability conference.

The helpers

Not surprisingly, there’s a growing industry around helping companies get better managing their water. The group includes water-technology and management companies and consultants. A couple that stand out include:


A seller of water technology solutions, it’s in Ecolab’s interest to promote smart water management. It provides help with consulting and a couple of publicly available online tools. The company’s smart water navigator takes company responses to 13 questions about individual facilities and then assesses performance and offers a roadmap for improvement. Its water risk monetizer is a financial modeling tool that helps companies make better strategic decisions and prioritize investments.

Water Foundry

Founded by well-known water guru Will Sarni, Water Foundry helps multinationals, startups, investors and water technology companies with data analytics, visualization tools, and strategy advice. Sarni says digitization and reuse technologies are the most-promising developments in the space. Equally important is helping large companies develop strategies that mitigate water risks, though he won’t name them. Confidentiality is important in a field as risky and sensitive as water.