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30 Jul Tackling water challenges to drive business in Asia

“I’ve 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.

Martin, who recently retired from P&G, spent more than 36 years in the multinational company and grew its business in various national, regional and global roles. I met Martin a few months back 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 amazing innovation that quickly turns 10 litres of dirty, potentially deadly water into clean and drinkable water. The packet was initially 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 can turn into a signature global program for P&G and to-date provide more than 9 billion litres of clean water in more than 75 countries got me curious on what is the state of water in our planet today and how other MNCs, startups and businesses are tackling water challenges.

While I had often heard of gloomy scenarios such as “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.

The World Economic Forum has recently ranked water crises as the number one highest concern for the planet in the next 10 years. 4 billion people – two-thirds of the global population – are currently facing water scarcity, and nearly half of them live in India and China.

Three in ten people in the world drink unsafe water Click to Tweet


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Asia is particularly vulnerable – it has less fresh water per person than any other continent, and at the same time, has some of the world’s 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 the 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.

Image Credit: WarkaWater

Image Credit: WarkaWater

WarkaWater – a system that consists of a bamboo frame and a mesh netting – is a design that can harvest 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 transforming the water crisis into entrepreneurial opportunity. Their micro-franchise model enables local community members become entrepreneurs and set up 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.

Their 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.

Companies leading the change.

Companies too, have 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.

It’s not just companies and nonprofits, but local researchers too are making headway in water. Last year, NUS 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%!

Image Credit: NUS

Image Credit: NUS

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, NGOs to reduce water consumption of their products. In short, water continues to be a great driver of business innovation and growth.

Here are 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 your business silo’s (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.

How can we help? Join or send your team on a 3-day IMPACT ADVENTURE in any Asian country so your employees can meet inspiring startups, social enterprises, NGOs and local change-makers tackling water!

2. Share your stories

Already doing incredible work? Then amplify your impact throughout your business unit and 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!

If you want to go a step further, why not work with your marketing or corporate communication teams to post publicly through your social media channels to source solutions from your audience?

How can we help? Reach out to us to create compelling media and digital content telling the stories of your work, or hold a workshop to empower your team to start telling their own stories!

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 which benefits all your stakeholders AND your shareholders. 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 which integrates a bigger purpose will far out-perform a strategy which just targets profit alone.

How can we help? We can work with you to refine your business strategy to engage employees, influence consumers and innovate for the future by tackling water challenges across Asia. First, why not get our team to come and do an interactive workshop & in-depth presentation to introduce your team to detailed insights and stories behind this post and the insights report below? Reach out to us at Gone Adventurin’ to adapt, apply and profit by putting sustainable development at the core of your business.

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 16-page report on WATER in Asia

View our 2-min visual on WATER in Asia

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19 Aug How do you bring a river back to life?

A pragmatic social entrepreneur working with business, media and communities to revive Indonesia’s source of life.

On first sight Prigi Arisandi comes across as an ordinary Indonesian, a doting father with a lovely family living in the outer suburbs of the sprawling city of Surabaya. Spend a day with him and you won’t fail to appreciate your next cup of pure drinking water, a vital necessity of daily life for 7.25 billion people in this planet today.

The book chronicles eco-heroes across the Indonesian archipelago.

A year ago, my team read Indonesian Eco-Heroes, a wonderful book by our mentor and advisor Gouri Mirpuri. Since then we had always wanted to meet Prigi. What had struck us about him was his pragmatic, two-fold approach — collaborating with companies, communities and local consumers to tackle pressing water challenges while inspiring the next generation to live in harmony with nature.

Surabaya is the second largest city in Indonesia and its main waterway — the 41-kilometer Surabaya River (part of the Brantas river basin), supplies 96% of the drinking water for 3 million people in the city.

Prigi with local school students upstream on the Surabaya river. His River Detection Program, has been implemented in more than 50 schools, teaches children how to monitor the river’s water quality and report their findings to the government.

Prigi spent his childhood swimming and playing in its cool, clear waters by his village and watching the entire community thrive happily on its banks. One day when he came back to his village after a few years in university he was in for a shock — his beloved river had become heavily polluted due to unchecked industrialisation and illegal human encroachments on its banks. Mercury levels in the river were 100 times the tolerable limit established by the World Health Organization.

He immediately established the social enterprise Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation (ECOTON) to promote environmental justice for present and future generations, especially in sustainable wetland resource management.

That was the year 1996. On a beautiful warm August morning 18 years since, Prigi is today taking us on a small, rickety boat to buy fresh fruits from a village on the opposite bank of the same river whose fate he’s helped transform.

“I hope you can swim?”, he asks tongue-in-cheek just as we begin to clamber carefully into our seats expecting the boat to topple over anytime.

His idea behind making us paddle across is to help us experience how close the river really is to the communities and how good stewardship of the river can create economic, health and social benefits.

We alternate between stretches of hard paddling, negotiating bends and soaking in the tranquil balance between man and nature that has been restored in this stretch of an ancient river which was once an entry port to the Majapahit Kingdom dating back to the 13th century AD.

Anang Samsul Arifin in his batik school shows a latest creation — a custom-designed table-piece for a Dutch client.

Along the way, we stop to meet an assortment of local communities that Prigi has helped setup to drive an economic incentive for the preservation of the river. First we meet Anang Samsul Arifin, a civil engineer turned artist who runs a school which teaches people across all ages the traditional textile art form of batik. Anang and his students use inspirations from the river and natural colours from its banks to create their art pieces, which fetch rewarding prices in international markets.

Next we meet Andreas, a long-time friend of Prigi whose bio-gas plant helps local families save US$6 a month in energy bills and incentivises the village folk to not dispose of cow waste into the river. Cattle waste often accumulates significantly downstream and is a big reason for river pollution.

On our final stop we head down to another tributary of the Surabaya river, this time a bit closer to the Java sea. Prigi has brought us here to experience the full impact of industrial pollution downstream. The dissolved oxygen levels in this patch of the river is less than 3mg/l. This means the water is hypoxic — many marine plants and animals here will not survive.

Untreated paper sludge of a nearby factory mixes with freshwater downstream before emptying into the Java Sea.

Prigi has been tirelessly working with his wife, who has a PhD in River Biology, and colleagues at ECOTON to educate local industries of the impact of river pollution and advising them on how to change their practices to become more environmentally sustainable.

In 2012 after working closely with Prigi and his team at ECOTON, the governor of East Java, Dr. Soekarwo, agreed to create a new sanctuary zone for native fish on the Surabaya River. A recent one-year research project on the Surabaya, which revealed that the river’s water quality is the healthiest it has been since at 2002.

For all his efforts to initiate a local movement to collaboratively work with various segments of society and clean his city’s river, Prigi was awarded the Goldman Prize, a top global environmental honour.

It was a wonderful learning experience to meet Prigi and his team. His pragmatism and networks of similar, incredible heroes shall guide us in our future projects in this beautiful country whose abundant rivers are its very source of life.

Prigi Arisandi (centre-left) with fellow 2011 Goldman Prize winners. Photo courtesy: Goldman Prize.

Article by Ashwin Subramaniam — Co-founder and Projects Director and Laura Allen — CEO & Business Development Director, Gone Adventurin’

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