World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

Landscape photo of a river at sunset

Wading Through the Complexities of Water Conservation

  • Date: 26 March 2021
  • Author: Gyan de Silva, WWF

One of my most profound experiences as a child in Sri Lanka was watching a herd of elephants soundlessly crossing a river in the middle of the night. They were on their way to raid a sugarcane farm, a common occurrence driven in large part by drought. Another common occurrence while growing up was power cuts, again driven by drought combined with a national overreliance on hydropower. These are two small ways in which water has shaped my experiences.

Gyan de Silva

Gyan de Silva works on corporate water stewardship as part of the Freshwater and Food team at WWF

I have always been passionate about nature, but it was only when I started working in conservation that I became passionate about water as well. My very first project as an intern at IUCN Sri Lanka was on restoring an ancient irrigation system for communities to manage water through floods and droughts. I was amazed by the complexity of the system, conceived more than 2,000 years ago. Different ponds (known as ‘tanks’) and ecosystems were constructed for different purposes, such as water filtration, groundwater recharge and even watering holes for wildlife (to divert them from encroaching farms). I was inspired by these ancient civilizations who maximized social and ecological outcomes through good water management.

Working with the private sector is appealing to me as not only do they have the largest impacts, but I also think they hold huge potential for positive change. Well-known brands can influence huge global supply chains to improve production practices, reach millions of consumers and develop game-changing innovations towards conservation. For me, leveraging the private sector’s resources, innovation, efficiency and influence towards water conservation is an exciting prospect.

As part of the Freshwater and Food Team at WWF, I work on corporate water stewardship: partnering with US companies to address water risks and improve the health of the basins on which they depend. This involves conducting water risk assessments, setting targets and strategies, linking companies to WWF’s many projects on the ground and generating more collective action to achieve basin-scale impacts. I would say my job is a combination of rigorous analysis and convening different actors together towards a common goal. Water stewardship requires collective action by different stakeholders, because of the shared nature of the resource. This is both challenging and rewarding.

Due to the complex and dynamic nature of water, there is plenty of room to try out new approaches and methods. For example, I am excited to be piloting the new Science Based Targets for Water (SBTW) methodology. This provides the answer to exactly how much a company should improve their water use or quality to achieve desired basin health levels. This could be truly groundbreaking as it would better direct private sector investments towards the right actions in the right places. More widely, I enjoy working with ambitious corporate partners who are always willing to test new approaches from innovative finance mechanism to technology and nature-based solutions. Similarly, I also feel lucky to learn from my outstanding colleagues in the network, who are constantly pioneering new methods ranging from wetland restoration to community resilience.

Finally, I am excited about the emergent emphasis on equity and justice. One of my favorite professors at graduate school always emphasized the link between environmental sustainability and human dignity. I look forward to exploring these linkages with companies as they engage stakeholders in their watersheds.

Water stewardship can be complex, but it underpins almost every aspect of our daily lives. I feel fortunate to work on something that is impactful and in everyone’s interest.