India’s Looming Water Crisis is a Threat to Corporate Sustainability

By Dr. Arnab Das

Over the last decade, corporations have come around to the idea that businesses cannot solely be measured by traditional economic metrics such as revenue, profit and growth. Their environmental impact, commitment to social issues and the soundness of their corporate governance are so key to assessing their risk profile.


In India, abiding by environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards is growing. However, despite the ESG taking center stage in an enterprise’s strategic and operating environment, it is still largely associated with terrestrial activities. A vital and often overlooked aspect is water.


Water is not an infinite resource. In the face of rising demand and increasing competition in India, the pressure on water resources is higher than ever before. India is the most populated country in the world with 1.4 billion people making it home to 18% of the world’s population, with access to only 4% of the world’s water sources. This makes India one of the most water-stressed in the world.


Almost every state in the country faces water scarcity in the summer amid weak monsoons and rising temperatures. In the winter, horrifying images of the Yamuna covered in toxic foam surface because of domestic and industry discharge into its waters that goes unchecked.


Even the Cauvery water dispute – where the state of Tamil Nadu is asking for additional water from Karnataka and Karnataka has cited temporary constraints for inability to comply – is another example of ineffective water management. According to the Carbon Disclosure Project, growing water insecurity may put a “substantive corporate value” at risk.


The role of corporations in India’s water crisis

Industries like agriculture, pharmaceuticals, power generation, mining, food and beverage, textile are highly water dependent. Other peripheral industries are also indirectly dependent on water for cooling, heating, transport and other operational needs.


The total demand for water in the country is predicted to double the amount of supply by 2030. Yet, water is not expensive in India. While that’s great for the common man, it also results in exorbitant usage and poor management in industries like agriculture, power generation and others. Industries that are specifically dependent on clean water largely do not have control over their operational runoffs leading to massive wastage.


Moreover, due to the lack of regulation, water resources are being polluted by the discharge of low-quality waterwater. According to a recent report, nearly 70% of households in India receive contaminated water.


Above and beyond water resource and quality management, when big corporations set up a new factory or manufacturing plant in rural areas, they invade smaller communities and use the limited water resources available to the locals increasing the economic burden.


This surge in water consumption, with rapid industrialization and urbanization at the helm, is only being exacerbated by climatic change. With water becoming increasingly scarce, companies with high water consumption are at the risk of experiencing manufacturing, supply chain, distribution, and financial turbulence.


Rethinking the role of water in ESG

India, like any other nation, faces mismanagement of water, climatic change vagaries, lack of technology, and regulatory tussles when it comes to addressing its water crisis. Surface water is getting depleted as well as polluted owing to poor management and lack of regulation. Groundwater is being exhausted due to excessive pumping supplying to communities and industries.


For the Indian industry to survive in the future, especially given the push on building out small and medium enterprises by the government, it is crucial for all stakeholders – industrialists, environmental regulators, innovators and maritime security – to coordinate and find solutions that are beneficial for everyone involved.


One way to achieve this goal is by applying the Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) framework. The management of water is not only limited to the surface but involves understanding the rich reservoir of resources and biodiversity that lies underwater as well. In order to ensure stable supply of high quality of water requires both the private and public sector to synergize cohesively towards constraining the detrimental impact of the water crisis.


The UDA framework proposes focusing on collaboration across stakeholders, focusing on digital transformation, and building out capacities in order to mitigate and manage the risk of India’s growing water scarcity.


For instance, water resources and water quality management are two distinct branches of water sciences when it comes to governance and policy making in India. Not only do they both need interlinking, they are also governed by different authorities. On one side you have the Ministry of Water Resource battling a set of issues, and on the other you have the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change dealing with the same issues when it comes to river management. This creates duplication of efforts and severely hampers the efficiency of regulation to tackle water-related issues. Industries need to coordinate with the public sector in order to shape policy and be the frontrunners of this evolution.


The private sector also has greater capital and resources for building indigenous technology that’s meant to address issues specific to Indian waters. While existing solutions serve as a bandage, they are not meant for India’s tropical warm waters leading to additional wear and tear as well as issues in data accuracy.


Marine Spatial Planning (MSP), for example, requires accurate data so that it can analyze and allocate the distribution of human activities in water to achieve sustainability. It serves as a governance tool to effectively manage and balance competing uses of marine resources, supporting the sustainable growth of the blue economy.


That being said, policy and technology can only take you so far if one doesn’t have the human capital to back it up. We have already seen incubation centers and accelerators boom in the last decade as startups and innovation have burgeoned in the country. Companies can do the same for building out specialized expertise, talent, and capacity in acoustics to effectively regulate the underwater domain. They can even upskill their employees and train fresh talent to understand the current state of water and challenges associated with it in order to come up with new solutions.


Those companies that appropriately mitigate the risks of India’s water crisis and demonstrate good water stewardship characteristics will create value for their shareholders and the economy overall.

(The author is Dr. Arnab Das, an eminent figure in the maritime industry, and the founder and Director of the Maritime Research Center (MRC), and the views expressed in this article are his own)

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