India is moving towards the bleak possibility of becoming a water-scarce nation by 2025 as many regions in the country face high to extremely high water stress. Agriculture – a mainstay for more than 60% of the country’s population – consumes 80% of this groundwater for irrigation thereby adding to the issue. Sustainable access to water, sanitation complemented with robust community-based governance and inclusion efforts, can effectuate transformative positive displacement for marginalized people with positive impact on their health, nutrition and savings in terms of time and money. With communities always at the core of our programs, PRI will keep on safeguarding water availability and creating drought-resiliency around our operations at scale. With an always stronger desire to be a “neighbor of choice”, PRI aims at holding a catalyzer role for mitigating the current water crisis and its always more adverse effects, says Sashidhar Vempala, Head- Sustainability, CSR & Director, Pernod Ricard India Foundation. Excerpts:
What is the role that corporations can play to help alleviate India from the impending water crisis?
One of the most fertile lands on earth stands today as the most water challenged nations in the world. With this conundrum in mind, it is essential to recognize that water remains one of the most critical areas in need of prompt and significant development. At the same time, the power of Corporate India and the impact responsible Corporate Citizens can play in developing the nation is emerging faster than ever and in India. Such a shift is also demonstrated with the applicability of the CSR law – one of its kind in the world – further changing the corporate landscape leveraging public-private partnerships. This new paradigm is increasingly made possible with the new CSR amendments, enforcing companies towards rigorous compliance vis-à-vis the governments’ requirements. With a focus on demonstrating the impact, spending the allocated funds and disclosing all information, the alterations also enforce companies to spend all budget on the ground – with a provision for unspent funds, ensuring their purposeful utilisation.
With the ability to leverage both purpose & partnerships, corporate institutions, especially those relying on water for their business, deploy water development programs. Although this is most often understood at a “within the fence” level or within their operational premises, (with the 3Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), it is important to go beyond, with community-related interventions both safeguarding water-access all year-round, creating awareness on water-governance and resiliency for all, on the long-term.
This approach has also been at the core of our Social purpose, of building strategic long-term programs and partnerships to further our impact in and around 25 plant locations touching close to 1.3 million lives, across various sectors including water, and going beyond into livelihoods, healthcare, education and social innovation.
What are your thoughts on corporates ensuring water efficient business practices?
Corporates must swiftly shift away from the prevailing business-as-usual and become water-efficient in their business practices. This sustainable and water-efficient approach is also strongly linked to communities. In fact, with communities granting us the social license to operate, it is our responsibility to be “good neighbors” and respect the common watershed. Beyond communities, it is also a responsibility as a business for nature, to not see environmental resources only as a means-to-an-end but also as something that we need to maintain.
Such understanding is strongly embedded both in PRI’s long-term sustainability vision of being a water-positive company while stewarding watershed-level collective action and its tangible impact-driven CSR vision of strengthening communities with water development.
What is the role of corporates in creating water-secure communities through systematic and sustainable practices?
It is irrefutable that water is at the core of the earth’s ecosystem. Recurrent IPCC Assessment Reports evidenced that with reducing freshwater, water scarcity will not only increase but this will also affect regional water, energy, and food security. We believe we have an inherent responsibility to not just promote coexistence of business and society but to support our communities and protect the environment we are based out of. Our efforts in engaging and empowering them to lead, maneuver their growth story, have the power to unleash the next wave of prosperity for the nation, especially around water – remaining the crux of all development.
Such responsibility is all the truer for marginal farming communities, who are more vulnerable in the face of hardships. With this in mind, we take a three-fold approach: recharging groundwater to ensure water availability tomorrow, creating storage structures to safeguard water access today, sensitizing and intervening with local communities – especially farmers – to reduce their water consumption through cost-efficient technologies for tangible impact today, and on the long-term. Our objective – through both a sustainable presence and use of water – is that our actions lead to an enhancement of livelihoods for our communities.
As brands are becoming more responsible, what are some measures they could take to address critical issues affecting the environment and become water positive?
With new business models emerging, and corporates strive to correspond to a new conscious consumer need, it is therefore no longer possible for corporates to view sustainability & responsibility in isolation, but rather, need to understand it as a necessary strategy to take ownership of responsibility – especially when it comes to water, at the core of all development.
The current task not only revolves around reducing the operation’s impact footprint; and it is as important to remember that such a shift cannot happen unless and until our communities are supported in their path towards becoming climate resilient. There cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution, which is why it is quintessential to always evaluate the local community’s and environmental needs objectively, ensuring contextually appropriate programs that will create transformation. For example, when we launch a new program, a community needs assessment is undertaken to gain insightful perspectives on what are the areas of work where we can support our communities. We have also carried out a mapping of the water-stress levels around our operations to understand which areas were of high priority. From there only can the program’s vision and interventions be aligned to the social and environmental challenges, making the company become truly responsible.
We believe in becoming “brands of purpose” incorporating a life cycle thinking in all our products, manufacturing them with lowest environmental footprint and focusing on maintaining a sustainable product portfolio. Adding to that, for us it is about bringing in conviviality and selling to the right consumers the right way, by engaging with all key stakeholders.
What are your thoughts on corporates supporting holistic development of communities through water management and ensuring safe drinking water?
We have continuously strived and progressed towards strengthening our Communities with Water Development, creating tangible and lasting value for them. This has been made possible by fostering resilience, safeguarding availability, quality, and quantity of water for communities.
An aspect of particular importance for us was to support small, marginal and women farmers around our plants. Simultaneously, ensuring basic rights to safe drinking water & sanitation for all, was also a key aspect of our vision. In fact, local communities need a holistic approach like these at the grass root level, augmenting and supporting local development needs.
While reviving and constructing water storage and recharge infrastructures is a necessary step when taking a holistic approach, it is not sufficient to ensure sustainability of water management. This is where raising awareness on the necessity and ways of reducing water use in agriculture – using today 80% of freshwater today – takes its importance.
It is also quintessential during such projects, to involve communities within the first phases of those programs to create a sense of ownership and therefore sustainability in their maintenance – both monetary and not. For example, our programs – on top of creating water governance institutions such as Jal Panchayats – leverage some monetary contribution from the community. An approach that involves all stakeholder’s dependent on water from the earliest stages – from marginal farmers, right to the women fetching safe drinking water – is not only more holistic but is the only way to ensure sustainable support for communities.
What are water stewardship initiatives undertaken by Pernod Ricard India?Water stewardship is understood – as per the International Union for Conservation Nature (IUCN) – as a socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial approach implying both responsible planning and appropriate management of water-use by all stakeholders.
At PRI, water circularity and stewardship have always been taken as core missions in our Sustainability & Responsibility roadmap. Leveraging the strength of domain experts, strategically mapping watershed stress areas around our operations, engaging competent implementation partners from the NGO sector, we have believed and realized the power of purpose-based partnerships.
With over 1,400 interventions in the course of three years, PRI has created a water potential of 2,632 million liters of water. With structures such as farm ponds, water tanks etc. programs have rendered water accessible for the community to use daily towards household needs, livestock, agriculture etc. A significant part of the programs also focuses on recharging the groundwater table (be it with recharge wells, check dams or rooftop rainwater harvesting etc.). The third area of intervention of the Water, Agriculture & Livelihoods (WAL) program focuses on training farmers in reducing their water-use by both optimizing the fields (with land-laser levelling or field-bunding) and promoting cost-efficient irrigation techniques (such as drip and sprinkler irrigation).
Finally, while our WAL programs work with farmers to foster water-resiliency, our WASH program provides communities with safe and affordable drinking water. Developing 50 water ATMs across 6 states, the interventions have already benefited 1,50,000 community members.
How are corporates measuring and evaluating their water replenishment projects?
With the CSR legislation and corporates’ understanding of the practice gaining maturity, it is understood that projects need to follow a clear and objective process. Part of this process is developing such programs where a contextual understanding of the needs is already – at least at some level – understood. Companies also need to be aware of the water-stress levels through a comprehensive mapping distinguishing the various levels of risks and ecosystem needs. For example, all our W.A.L. programs are implemented at proximity from our operations and water structures development is focused on need, prioritizing extremely high or high water-stress locations (such as Rajasthan, Punjab & Maharashtra).
It is essential for us to assess the baseline – the state of things prior interventions. Only that can allow us to draw inferences on the impact of interventions and adapt the approach for the next steps. While the objective remains similar for all projects, e.g. making communities resilient to water stress – the approach and methods may vary from one location to another, as a context-sensitive approach is key to the program’s success.
For example, in an area where farmers mostly live out animal husbandry, it might be more useful to develop water storage infrastructures; while where the essential of farmers live out paddy crops, focusing on drip irrigation promotion might be more needed. The tools and methods of measurement will therefore vary from one intervention to another, but always need to remain relevant and applicable, to the local context with potential quantitative measurement using GIS tools to piezometers, water meters etc. While this goes for quantitative data, some information cannot be translated in numbers – especially when considering communities’ wellness and outcomes.
Hence it is also important to undertake beneficiary interactions, which combined with the quantitative outcomes, bring about a comprehensive and qualitative understanding of the impact of the interventions on the community and at an outcome level, in working towards a “theory of change”.