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Tackling Water Challenges to Drive Business in Asia

Image Credit: Christopher Michel

“I focused on making sure that sustainability is something which is integrated with day-to-day business planning systems rather than something just handled by a corporate group on the side,” says Martin Riant, a senior business leader in the consumer goods industry.

Riant, who recently retired from P&G, spent more than 36 years at the multinational company, growing its business in various national, regional and global roles. I met him recently when he became interested in Gone Adventurin’s model to integrate sustainability into the core of business – a vision he also passionately believes in.

One of the examples he discussed was how a few years back P&G had developed a water-purification technology in a powder – an innovation that quickly transforms 10 litres of dirty, potentially deadly water into clean and drinkable. The packet was invented by P&G laundry scientists who were originally separating dirt from used laundry water, but in doing so also invented a breakthrough technology that can enable people anywhere in the world to purify dirty water in a simple, affordable and convenient way.

This example of how a single innovation turned into a signature global program for P&G and to date has provided more than 9 billion litres of clean water (with a goal of 15 billion by 2020) in more than 75 countries got me curious about the state of water around the world today and how businesses of all sizes are tackling water challenges.

While there’s been speculation that Asia’s next major conflict will be over fresh water, the potential dangers of inability to access clean water does indeed have serious consequences.

For most of us living in cities with relatively constant access to clean water, life without this precious resource is not a pressing issue. However the ground realities across the continent tell a very different story.

In 2015, the World Economic Forum ranked water crises as the number-one Global Risk. 4 billion people – two-thirds of the global population – are currently facing water scarcity, and nearly half of them live in India and China.

Asia is particularly vulnerable – it has less fresh water per person than any other continent, along with the worst water pollution. The recent drought that hit parts of Southeast and South Asia was the worst in decades – affecting Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and India, and claiming several lives.

Ground-up solutions for water

While that reality is challenging, the scale of the problem and Asia’s innate thirst for innovation means that several grassroots solutions are already in various stages of development, addressing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation:

  • WarkaWater – a system that consists of a bamboo frame and mesh netting – is designed to convert rain, fog and dew from the air into potable water. The simple structure can be constructed by six people in a week with locally sourced materials, and is owned and operated by communities. The latest iteration is capable of collecting up to 100 litres of potable water each day.
  • Drinkwell is turning the water crisis into entrepreneurial opportunity. Its micro-franchise model enables local community members to become entrepreneurs and set up clean-water businesses in arsenic-affected areas of Asia. It provides affected villagers with water filtration technology and business tools, creating jobs, improving health and generating income at the same time. Drinkwell’s systems deliver 60x more water, are 17x more energy efficient, and reduce waste by 7 orders of magnitude compared to reverse osmosis, the current best practice. Currently there are over 200 profitable deployments spread over India, Laos and Cambodia, with local partners.

Organizations leading the change

Larger companies and non-profits have also begun to spearhead change in impacting water in Asia. In 2006, Water.org approached PepsiCo to help scale ‘WaterCredit’ – an initiative that brings safe water and sanitation facilities to India’s poor. The resulting pilot exceeded expectations and a further grant of $8m from PepsiCo promises to provide 800,000 people with access to safe water this year.

Local researchers, too, are making headway in water. In 2015, National University of Singapore researchers developed a new membrane, inspired by the roots of mangrove trees, that makes water purification highly efficient – and can potentially lower purification costs by 30 percent!

And while regional, medium-sized companies such as Hyflux in Singapore and Manila Water in the Philippines are innovating new business models around water, we also see global companies such as Unilever and P&G collaborating actively with local startups and NGOs to increase access to sanitation and reduce water consumption of their products. In short, water continues to be a great driver of business innovation and growth.

3 things you can do in your company

  1. Involve your staff – Implementing solutions from the top down might get things done initially, but unless there is passion and commitment from your team, you will never get the sustainable results you need. Work across all of your business silos (Talent and HR, Corporate Comms, CSR, Marketing etc.) to facilitate employee experiences to make sure everyone understands the issue and is inspired to make a difference.
  2. Share your stories – Already doing incredible work? Then amplify your impact throughout your global teams through authentic and engaging storytelling. Using something as simple as your smartphone, record your success and your failures to get support and strengthen your internal networks. Most importantly, exchange ideas. Or take it a step further and work with your marketing or corporate communication teams to post publicly through your social media channels to source solutions from your audience.
  3. Update your strategy – The most important part of solving any social or environmental issue is to integrate it into the core of your business strategy. Explore new supply chains and form new partnerships that benefit all of your stakeholders. You can find a strategy to influence your consumers’ behaviour, or simply innovate the design of your product. Look at the materials you use and see if you can create a more transparent and effective supply chain. At the end of the day, a powerful business strategy that integrates a bigger purpose will far outperform a strategy that just targets profit alone.

This article is part of our monthly series of insights to help business leaders discover business value through a social and environmental purpose. Download our latest report on WATER in Asia.

This post first appeared on the Gone Adventurin’ blog on July 30, 2016.


Ashwin Subramaniam is the founder and CEO of Singapore-based Gone Adventurin’, a social business created to help companies #DiscoverPurpase and make sustainability and positive social impact a profitable and core part of every business. Connect with him on [Read more about Ashwin Subramaniam]


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