Utilities Membranes Europe

New water stewardship standards: sharpening the mind or creating fatigue?

Thursday, 25 April 2024

Two new sets of water stewardship standards are in the pipeline, but with existing standards also in the process of being reviewed are we in danger of over-complicating matters, or is the water industry in need of greater focus? 

Here we take a brief look at the new standards being proposed.

SCS Global Services Water Stewardship and Resiliency Certification Standard

US-based SCS Global Services has developed a site-specific ‘certification standard’ for water steward and resiliency which was available for public review until April 24, 2024. 

SCS is a non-profit organisation committed to the development of standards that advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

The organisation states that the standard (SCS-116) was developed to ‘recognise organisations that responsibly manage water resources’, and has three aims:
To stimulate nature-based and innovative technology solutions towards increasing water resiliency and resource management,
Encourage organizations to engage with their surrounding communities, and
Promote transparency by communicating an organization’s impact on the environment and progress over time. 

Strive for the highest level of water stewardship and resiliency.

Organisations are encouraged by the standard to ‘strive for the highest level of water stewardship and resiliency’. Companies can achieve special recognition for ‘cutting-edge trailblazer requirements’ in the following categories: 
Nature-Based Solutions
Innovative Technologies
Natural Habitat and Biodiversity Impacts
Net-Zero Water
Net-Positive Water 
Water Circularity
Water Quality 
Community Development 


British Standards Institute (BSI) 

The BSI has announced that it is considering creating global standards covering water stewardship at the enterprise level. Citing a recent CDP paper, which revealed one in five companies were concerned that they were exposed to ‘serious water-related business risks’ and its own contributions to a report on water stewardship prepared by National Centre for Social Research (NCSR) in the UK, the body stated that there was ‘potential for a new water stewardship standard to address some of the barriers and gaps in the current water stewardship landscape’.

Stakeholders felt that an enterprise-level solution was needed.

The BSI report identified ‘a clear gap in the current water stewardship landscape was a standard that could be applied at the level of the whole organisation’. While seeing the standards as complementing the AWS site-level standard, the report stated: 

“However, stakeholders felt that an enterprise-level solution was needed to complement this approach. An enterprise-wide standard could provide a model of good practice for non-state actors on what actions to take to move beyond water management. 

“This was envisaged as complementing existing water-related ISO standards that operate at the enterprise-level but were felt to have 'niche' uses within water stewardship. 

Such a standard could provide a stronger incentive for corporate action on water stewardship by providing a verified mechanism to make claims on activities beyond individual sites and basins, and reassurance for the investment needed to mainstream water stewardship in a company’s activities.”


Do we need separate standards for corporate and site level?

There are a number of standards available to companies at site level, but fewer at corporate/enterprise level. 

BSI is considering adding standards at the corporate level, but in it is own report it states that these would face a number of challenges, such as standards that become so broad they can become ‘vague and slippery, leading to greenwashing’. It also noted that ‘there general fatigue around sustainability standards’.

There are a number of reasons why companies might choose not to adopt water stewardship standards. One of which is the sheer number that are available.

Jennifer Möller-Gulland, founder and managing director, Water Security Collective, believes that there is no need for a ‘one size fits all’ approach to standards. She told Aquatech Online: “There is no ‘one’ standard. The discussion of which standard is best, is diverting attention from what can we do to actually create impact on the ground.”

The WWF puts an emphasis on the business case for water stewardship standards, but companies may not see it this way.

If you're in a less water risky area, you don't need the most in-depth assessment to understand your impact.

Möller-Gulland continues: “Companies don't always see the business case, e.g. does this improve my bottom line, because it can be costly and requires capacities they may not have.

“Even if they are adopted... are they actually telling me what I need to know as an investor/ buyer/ consumer: Is the site located in a high water risk area? Is the site having a negative impact on surrounding water resources/communities? Is it taking action that is actually useful?”

Möller-Gulland believes companies may need to adopt approaches according to the areas they operate in. “If you're in a less water risky area, you don't need the most in-depth assessment to understand your impact - just ‘do no harm’.”

Whereas she believes that high risk areas need more substantial assessment and standards. 

The case for integrating standards

Will the problems of ‘standards fatigue’ and adoption be addressed by adding more standards to the mix? Perhaps it would be best to have one corporate standard and one site-level standard, but which ones would work best and prove most resilient? 

With BSI considering its corporate level standards and SCS Global Standards in the process of making revisions to its standards following an open comment period, it is too early to assess these against current standards and to understand whether there is room for more than one standard at each level, and whether this would improve adoption and most importantly, impact.

As Möller-Gulland points out, would it even be possible to integrate standards for both corporate and site level water stewardship? The BSI, after all, is worried that its own standards might become too vague, and they would only cover corporate level stewardship. 

The current process of reviewing both current and proposed standards, ensures one thing, it will identify gaps and common elements, and it will do so by engaging the water community in discussion and reflection, which can only help to drive water stewardship standards forward.