Harmonising India’s water accounting with the SDGs

Oliver Taherzadeh & Chris West, Stockholm Environment Institute
Link to the full report

In 2015, world leaders committed to seventeen Global Goals to guide international sustainable development efforts. Across these goals, water sustainability is a cross-cutting issue; its centrality to the framework reflecting its importance as a multi-level development issue fundamental to human development and environmental sustainability.

Enhancing attention on the impacts of human withdrawal and consumption of water has the potential to address issues of climate change mitigation and adaptation, conservation, food security, energy security, health, gender equality, urbanization, institutional capacity, and sustainable consumption and production. However, effective management of water resources involves reconciling a complex set of stakeholder needs, priorities and impacts within the water system originating from industry, civil society, government, and transboundary actors. Unsurprisingly, the measurement landscape to monitor and report water sustainability is often highly fragmented.

Misalignment between water accounting systems adopted by different actors within the water economy has the potential to produce information asymmetries between different scales of governance, leading to a potential risk of mission drift and subsequent resource mismanagement and conflict. Developing knowledge of where these misalignments and blind-spots occur between business-, national- and global-level water accounting systems offers the potential  for improving  coverage and alignment of water reporting and management across scales and is likely to foster effective goal-setting and action in sustainable water governance.

India is a prime case study for analysis of this nature, given the major barrier water resource over-exploitation, scarcity and conflict poses to achieving sustainable development and poverty alleviation within the nation. Over the past 150 years, and particularly following its independence in the 1950s, India has invested significantly  in its water infrastructure Such improvements have transformed previously arid areas into regional economic centres of growth and prosperity. However, more recently, attempts to augment India’s water supply have been challenged by mounting demand-side (population over-consumption, dietary change and industrial competition) and supply-side (climate change, water pollution and virtual water exports) pressures which threaten the continued success of India’s development, both economically and socially.

A report by the Measure What Matters group has attempted to unpick the complexity in the water measurement landscape by examining the current state of corporate and government water reporting in India. Research assessed the coverage of government water monitoring and common corporate water reporting frameworks in India across a range of water sustainability dimensions; water use efficiency, infrastructure capacity, risk identification, pollution management, compliance with water-related regulation and access to clean water and sanitation.

The analysis finds significant misalignments and blind-spots in the way water sustainability was being conceptualised and measured by India’s government, within corporate reporting frameworks, and across the SDGs. These findings are indicative of monitoring and reporting inefficiencies within India’s water economy and at worst allude to a lack of state and industry capacity to detect water-related impacts and act decisively to resolve them. Within this context, we identify several dimensions of water sustainability which require particular attention to improve reporting alignment between corporate and government levels and the SDGs (Figures 1 and 2):

1) Access to water: Measures of access to (clean) water and sanitation by local communities

2) Compliance:  Measures of compliance with, and disclosure against local, national, regional and international water legislation

3) Infrastructure: Availability of infrastructure to provide (clean) water (efficiently/sustainably)

India water - figure 1

Figure 1: Levels of coverage of water sustainability dimensions between corporate-, government- and SDG-level water reporting frameworks.

india water - figure 2

Figure 2: Levels of coverage and alignment of water sustainability dimensions between corporate-, government- and SDG-level water reporting frameworks

In many cases, our recommendations do not demand new investment in the development of new indicators; instead, we identify a clear role for improve state-industry partnerships on data collection and integrated reporting to improve national-level coherence of India’s water accounting systems with the SDGs.

With the recognition that the business sector has the potential to make a significant contribution to furthering sustainable development goals, the research also explores the state of corporate water reporting in India. Here we analysed sustainability disclosures from India’s top 200 businesses against the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) water-related indicators. In total, 79 out of the 200 companies reported their sustainability performance within their annual reporting cycle with the remainder reporting only against growth and finance parameters. Out of the 79 companies, 50 opted to use GRI guidelines to disclose their environmental and social governance. Overall, we found a chronic lack of water reporting across India’s major businesses, with the worst offenders in Services, Utilities and Manufacturing sectors.

In order to widen corporate water reporting in India, we make the following recommendations to the measurement community in India:

1)     Harness government data on the state of the water environment to help reporting of business impact within the context of regional and local water issues;

2)     Work with the informal economy to encourage environmental and social governance compliance, impact reporting and formal water monitoring;

3)     Introduce mandatory water impact reporting in water intensive sectors;

4)     Ensure state sector companies are under equal obligation to report water impact as the private sector.

Our recommendations to tackle India’s water dilemma look beyond technological fixes and short-term supply side measures, and seek opportunities for cooperation across scales to improve India’s water accounting. Such action to mobilise state and industry capacity in India and develop a more coherent water accounting system is needed to shore up its readiness to successfully implement and monitor the water-related SDGs over the next 15 years.

Read the executive summary and full report here

Oliver Taherzadeh is a Project Coordinator with the Sustainable Consumption & Production Group, Stockholm Environment Institute.
Chris West is a Research Associate & Co-Leader of the Rethinking Development Theme, Stockholm Environment Institute

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