Work Thoughts – Net Positive Water (NPW) and its Feasibility

Another term that I was informed of recently – Net Positive Water (NPW), or Water Net Positive. Somehow any combination of the term’s words still works.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Net Positive strategies focus on a systems approach to reduce natural resource footprints in communities, thereby providing long-term solutions for sustainability and resilience and ensuring the viability of these resources.

While Net Zero Water is a used term, NPW  is fairly new. Similar to Net Positive Energy, NPW implies producing more consumable water on site than used over the course of a year.

An article in The Guardian by James Dalton, coordinator of global water initiatives at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), titled “Is Net Positive Feasible When It Comes To Water?” asserts that “businesses should do more to reduce their impacts, and not just aim at being reductionists”, but debates whether the idea of Net Positive make sense when it comes to water. It gives the example of a mining company – “Imagine a mining company that has to remove forest to access minerals. This would negatively impact biodiversity, carbon storage, some social benefits, possibly cultural impacts, and maybe even hydrology. It would all be at the scale and context of the forest. In its simplest form, to become net positive the company would need to replace more forest than was removed. Equally, it would need to assess what cultural and social impacts had occurred, and how they would be replaced.” 

When considering the idea of Net Positive, water is far more complex than just metrics and values – There are a lot more intangible factors that need to be considered, like timing, for example.

Water flows at different rates and different levels based on seasonality. Rainfall depends on a variety of factors globally over the course of a year. According to Dalton, the concept of NPW raises  a lot more questions as it moves forward, “Because water moves, and has immediate local context unlike carbon, how long do you take NPI “credit” for? And what exactly do you count: the volume of water replaced, and from where, and for how long? How do you compare this with NPI activities in another river basin – are they the same? What is the baseline to use, and how long do you keep going to become positive? What does success look like for water – how have you improved the state of it?”

In order to make positive strides in the myriad of challenges for NPW, it would be critical to observe and analyze the management, social values, and policy regimes that manage water. Dalton recommends some solutions that businesses could offer to help progress the concept of NPW. I believe that these solutions could also be applied to community organizations and neighborhood groups:

  1. Defining the mission clearly and identifying partners that can aid in your progress. Water management is no longer about infrastructure – it is about governance, accountability, equity, partnership, economics, and productive clean water services.
  2. Setting your strategic goals (baselines, timelines, claims, indicators) and engrain this in the business culture. By making it clear who will measure progress, at what business scale, and when – and disclosing it – one would have to make sure it survives beyond the current leaders of the firm.
  3. Investing where the best water use efficiencies can be made, and where they will have a positive and measurable impact. Focusing on water efficiency does not make one positive; it makes them efficient.
  4. Acknowledging and understanding the group’s boundaries and limitations. Water is a complex resource so focusing on what the group thinks they can do and deliver on it by understanding the wider water management, social and policy regime they operate in. Localizing the relevance of the task is critical.
  5. Staying updated on how water stewardship is framing the debate. With that, the group can then ask how the group can connect it to the dominant narrative in business and water today.

Ultimately, the idea of Net Positive Impact is a term that resonates within businesses and neighborhood groups. For water, sustainability practices have to be relevant to people other than just business – because the challenges that really matter are not internal anymore.

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