Put Your Money Where Your Water Is: The Global Call for Water Stewardship
Water requires more than pipes and faucets to run, it takes stewardship—an agreement between users and suppliers that water and its quality and flow will be cared for by all who use it. Stewardship is a group effort and the payoff is better water—and maybe even more water—for everyone. Marta Echavarria, a Colombian social entrepreneur and Senior Ashoka Fellow who fostered the world’s first $18M fund, FONAG, speaks to the need to change the future of our landscapes and the way we think about the business of water in cities globally.
A closer look at FONAG reveals it not only ensures water source protection but also promotes water education. FONAG is effective because it prioritizes long-term results fueled by fluid conversations between those at the beginning and end of the water pipeline. Water funds are now becoming a model throughout Latin America, and even beyond. Future entrepreneurs should take note, Echavarria says, because the global effort to curb climate change requires long-term thinking when involving a global common such as water. Below, Ashoka's Alexandria Brown chats with Echavarria about her passion for water.
Alexandria Brown: What does good water stewardship mean exactly? Why does a city or a country need a water fund?
Marta Echavarria: A water fund is a financial entity that gives cities financial flow and protection for their water sources for the long-term. It also helps reduce risk in terms of water scarcity, and it allows for integrated water management. For instance, through FONAG every child in Quito, Ecuador, where we operate, goes through a program where they learn where their water comes from, why their natural landscapes are important for their water, how they should brush their teeth and not leave the faucet open and where their water goes. Outreach is important and you need resources for that—so some of the resources in the fund go towards creating a culture of water.
Brown: You made mention of “uncomfortable alliances” when you were building FONAG. What made them uncomfortable?
Echavarria: Well, when I went back to Colombia, I went to work with the sugar industry—an impressive agro-industry with a terrible legacy. It’s an industry that is very well organized. They were one of the first leading agro-industries in Colombia—and I would say in Latin America—that wanted to have a strong environmental management program, which included watersheds that fed the water to sugar fields, as well as the water treatment at the end of the pipeline. I worked with all 11 sugar mills at the time—and these are large-scale farmers for the Colombian setting. All of a sudden, I had the possibility to really pioneer a program and stir them to more sustainable practices.
Brown: What are your thoughts around whether big change can happen without big companies? What is the possible fallout from choosing to interact with big business?
Echavarria: The biggest risk is reputational—to affect one's reputation and credibility. And of course, the frustration and loss of faith when we see business acting with little responsibility. But there are many ways to bring about change. It can come from the inside or outside. It can be with or without companies. Change is going so fast now that there is not a set pattern. Change is not static or gradual—sudden changes can happen and even big companies can be left behind if they do not evolve.
Brown: What were you seeing or observing in Colombia (or greater Latin America) that made you focus on environmental issues early on?
Echavarria: In my development classes in college we would talk about the challenges to provide good healthy lives for people. And in my environmental classes we would talk about all the damage that we were causing with development and economic change. So I started saying, 'Well, you want both—can’t we get both? Can’t we get development as well as environmental protection?' And interestingly enough, at that time the answer was no. But I kept asking. It really was the very natural kind of questioning you do when you are coming from a developing country and you want the roads, you want the infrastructure, you want electricity, you want those kinds of benefits, and you think this shouldn’t go against the natural beauty you have all around you.
Brown: Last question, considering that water is so important to you, how do you plan to impact the billion-dollar water-bottling industry in a way that promotes growth instead of destruction?
Echavarria: I think we all need to be part of the solution because we are all part of problem. When you are bottling water, and commercializing water, you have to realize that you have a different standing. You are dealing with a commodity that is also a basic human right, and so if you are making money with that product, you need to make sure you are very responsible about its management. We need to open up those conversations and be able to discuss with these companies how responsible they are with their practices, not only in the plants, but in their interaction with the local communities where they operate. With multi-national companies that have a global scope, the standard is even higher and more complex since the impact of the business has unintended consequences.
Echavarria has been a Senior Ashoka Fellow since 2006. For more on her work on water and conservation, explore FONAG and her organization EcoDecision, a consulting firm that seeks to promote global conservation.
If you are tackling some of the biggest challenges in water, nutrition and rural development, and want funding and support to take your idea to the next level, enter your initiative to the Creating Shared Value Prize – a collaboration between Nestle and Ashoka. Winning entries will receive prizes worth up to CHF 500,000 (US $500K) and a trip to the World Water Forum in Brazil in 2018. http://po.st/CSVPrize