February 7, 2011 12:02 am

A growing thirst for water management

 
Stuart Briers illustration

For a professional who wants to specialise in water conservation and management, the traditional route – a course in natural resources management – throws up a healthy choice of programmes at universities and colleges. But for an executive hoping to apply water conservation techniques in a business context, the pickings are far thinner.

This is odd. For if business schools are supposed to reflect trends in the corporate sector, they have some catching up to do in this respect. The rush to include content on corporate sustainability into business management courses has not encouraged the introduction of many of the more technical and strategic aspects of water management into their courses.

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However, in the corporate world, global companies are taking water conservation seriously. Coca-Cola lists “water scarcity and poor quality” among material risks to the business in its annual filing to the US Securities and Exchanges Commission.

Jeff Fulgham, chief sustainability officer at General Electric, sees an increase in the pressure to include water in corporate reporting. “There is a groundswell of new and different reporting going on,” says Mr Fulgham, who is also GE’s “ecomagination” leader of water and process technologies. “So it’s not something that you can ignore any more.”

While much of the effort on environmental sustainability relates to energy use and carbon emissions reductions, many experts say that stress on global water supplies poses an even bigger environmental risk to the planet.

To help mitigate the risks associated with water, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development has developed a tool that companies can use to map their water consumption and assess the risks they face in their operations and supply chains.

Mr Fulgham says business executives need more knowledge of water to understand how it relates to other resources. “It might not necessarily be part of the required curriculum but an understanding of the financial implications of water on the balance sheet is important because it shows up in a lot of places that aren’t always obvious,” he says.

Water issues are included in the optional courses offered by some MBA programmes. This is true of Boston University School of Management’s Global Sustainability and the New Entrepreneur programme. At Fisher Graduate School of International Business, the Environmental Issues in Business elective looks at how companies can benefit from resource efficiency, including reducing water use. And, at Illinois Institute of Technology, the Stuart School of Business has an elective in Water Policy and Management that covers global water use in areas such as irrigation, water supply system management, sanitation, flood control and hydropower.

When it comes to some of the technical and engineering aspects of water management, some of the joint MBA programmes that have emerged at business schools recently provide a way of gaining applied knowledge.

At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, students on the joint MBA/Master of Environmental Studies spend three semesters at Wharton, two at the College of Liberal and Professional Studies within the School of Arts and Sciences and take a summer capstone course.

However, within the MBA programme, many schools have yet to bring water issues into their courses. “A lot of the content on sustainability is still very general,” says Giselle Weybrech, author of The Sustainable MBA: The Manager’s Guide to Green Business. “They give definitions of what sustainability is and a little about what is happening in the corporate world but they are not really giving students the tools to apply this to business.”

One exception is a water specialisation being launched next January by the Rotterdam School of Management as part of its executive MBA programme. The RSM programme (designed in collaboration with Wetsus, Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Water Technology, a research institute) combines modules taken at the business school with those that take place Wetsus in Leeuwarden, as well as projects carried out within a company context.

Participants follow the EMBA alongside students from all industries, while a third of the programme is the water specialisation. Because the RSM water specialisation is modular, it will also be open to students from other institutions. These students study for a four to five-day period and gain a diploma but they must have completed or be at least part of the way through an MBA programme.

Hetty Brand-Boswijk, director of financial aid and development for MBA programmes at RSM, says that the water specialisation course is designed to attract not only executives who want more knowledge of water issues but also engineers who want to beef up their skills in areas such as project management, strategic planning, finance and marketing.

“Large water companies in the Netherlands are saying that they have great engineers but that they can’t think further than the engineering solution,” she says. “If these are the CFOs or CEOs of the future, they need to know about the management of the technology they are developing, not just the technology itself.”

She cites the example of a company wanting to sell its water-related technology in China or India. “You need to know what is the best way to get your product in.”

Moreover, when it comes to the business opportunities presented by water, knowledge of engineering, policy and even philosophical considerations is essential.

David Festa, head of land, water and wildlife at Environmental Defense Fund, a US advocacy group, cites the example of the emerging water rights trading sector, in which companies obtain water from areas where it is being used for low-value activities such as agriculture to sell to thirsty areas such as cities, which might be prepared to pay high prices for it.

“If you look at the economics, it’s a massive opportunity,” he says.

Executives will need a more sophisticated understanding of the business environment for water, whether they are reducing the water risks to which their company is exposed or participating in a new water trading infrastructure, adds Mr Festa.

“It’s the new world of the business of water,” he says. “And water is one of those issues where straight-up business skills are only half the equation.”

He sees a role for business schools in advancing the knowledge of water issues. “Having business schools more involved in this will get people
thinking through how to manage these issues and what needs to be in place.”

However, Ms Weybrech believes schools need to do more in this area. “Even now it’s more and more difficult to get access to the quantities of water that businesses need. But it’s going to take a lot for the faculty to react – and business is moving much faster on these issues.”

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