The Business Case for Building Community Resilience in Corporate Value Chains with the USAID Gap Inc. Women + Water Alliance

In a village in India, Sumalila is the youngest daughter in her family. With the time she saved by no longer needing to walk to collect water, she contributes to the household by sewing and selling garments. Photo credit: Water.org

At this year’s Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI’s) World Water Week, partners from the USAID Gap Inc. Women + Water Alliance shared perspectives on the business case for investing in community water resilience. The Women + Water Alliance is a public private partnership between USAID and Gap Inc., where we’re taking a collective action approach with our non-profit partners to help women in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh in India to meet their own WASH-related needs. Through this work, we aim to empower two million people to improve their access to clean water and sanitation by 2023.

At Gap Inc., we promote the health and wellbeing of women and communities affected by the apparel industry. Our business relies on water to grow cotton and manufacture fabric—there are no clothes without water. Women, already disproportionately burdened by water challenges, comprise 70% of our value chain. That nexus of women and water underscores the complexity of the problem and aligns with our values as a company.

There are a range of motivations for companies to contribute to community water resilience.

Improving water resilience is good for business, compelling to shareholders, and increasingly expected by customers, employees, and the local community.

Community Water Resilience Benefits Across Stakeholders: At the corporate level, investors want to better understand the water-related risks and mitigation, customers want to buy sustainably manufactured products, and corporate employees want to work in companies that align with their values. With increasing water scarcity impacting both availability and quality of water, there is a growing recognition that conserving, treating, and reusing water provides economic benefits. Improving water access in communities along the supply chain will lead to more resilient communities and workforces.

Long-term Business Operations and Local Impact: Because local communities rely on the same water for agriculture and livelihoods as corporations do for operations, companies must consider the long-term effects of their presence and support local communities at a basin level. Investing in WASH improvements that especially benefit women and youth will further foster trust and goodwill between companies and the communities in which they operate.

Additionally, their technical expertise, capacity to innovate, and financial and human resources, uniquely position companies to shepherd better water stewardship practices.

Collective action builds water resilience at the community and household level

Read below to learn how the collective efforts of each Women + Water Alliance partner builds community water resilience by empowering women as water champions in their communities.

Promoting Women as Champions in Community Water Resilience: CARE implements the Gap Inc. P.A.C.E. (Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement) life skills program, which provides women in cotton-growing and textile-manufacturing regions training in communications, leadership, and teamwork, as well as strategies for dealing with resistance to change. These trainings prepare women to advocate for and take the lead on their household and community water needs. In fact, in 2020 P.A.C.E. trainers shared countless instances of P.A.C.E. participants who went on to run in Gram Panchayat elections, and more than 150 of the women were elected into local government positions! (This is anecdotal information provided by the P.A.C.E. trainers in the field. This is not tracked formally as a key performance indicator.)

The advocacy of women who had participated in P.A.C.E. training often translated into meaningful improvements in water access. For example, a non-functional motor in a local borewell in the Badiyamandu village (Dewas district) meant women had to travel up to 1.5 km to collect water. Following their participation in P.A.C.E., five women decided to use their newly-honed communication and public speaking skills to file a complaint in front of the sarpanch (the local governing body). Thanks to their efforts, a new motor was installed in their village, benefiting 150 families with clean drinking water.

Empowering Women’s Leadership in Local Governance: WaterAid also works with women taking a leadership role in local water management. Women are actively participating in local water management committees—mapping water sources, conducting quality tests for drinking water, and demanding redressal of any issue from the local government. This work aligns with the Government of India’s Jal Jeevan Mission to provide safe and adequate drinking water to all households in rural India by 2024. To date, WaterAid has submitted over 1000 Village Action Plans to improve local water access, thanks to the leadership of these women. Post-submission, women are now supervising the implementation of water access construction projects and planning the maintenance of the water infrastructure.

Map of a program district
Image 1: Map of a program district

Exploring Financing Solutions: Water.org demonstrates how building water resilience is also about being able to own your water solution. Through affordable small loans, microfinance can help people afford the installation of water connections or storage solutions. As of July 2021, Water.org has facilitated the disbursement of 34,505 loans with a cumulative value of around USD $8 million, empowering 165,623 people to improve their access to water and sanitation. This enables women to spend more time on income-generating livelihood activities by reducing time spent collecting water. For example, after one such loan reduced the hours that a young woman named Sumalali spent walking to retrieve water, she was able to dedicate more time to her sewing business.

A woman in a patterned blue and white sari bends down to collect water from a pump in the ground. Rehana and her family live in a village in India where the homes rarely have water or sanitation connections. She previously walked six hours a day to collect water. On days when water was unavailable, Rehana had to purchase water from a vendor for a high price. Now, she can fill vessels of water just outside her door, rather than miles from home. Photo credit: Water.org

Strengthening Water Stewardship with Cotton Farmers: Institute for Sustainable Communities helps cotton farmers strengthen their agricultural practices to grow crops with less freshwater and continue generating income in the face of climate challenges. The Women + Water Alliance has trained over 4,000 cotton farmers on water and chemical use reduction in cotton production. One farmer, Shantabai, reported saving money and increasing yields through sustainable cotton cultivation practices.

The resilience of cotton farmers is critical to our entire textile value chain—mills, brands, financial institutions—and essential for apparel business.

Takeaways

Companies increasingly recognize that water stewardship and WASH are not simply a corporate social responsibility issue, but help ensure long-term business continuity. We encourage other companies to build water strategies into their business strategy, thus supporting the company’s long-term sustainability and unlocking the full potential of water stewardship through local water resilience. Focusing on women as change agents and collective action, such as through the work of the Women + Water Alliance, will be critical for creating sustainable and scalable solutions for addressing water issues along the value chain.


Watch the full discussion with USAID Gap Inc. Women + Water Alliance from SIWI World Water Week 2021: The Business Case for Building Community Resilience in Corporate Value Chains.

Alison Gilbert, Sr. Specialist for Water Stewardship, Gap Inc. With input from Saswat Rath, Lisa Hook, and Pavneet Bhatia from Gap Inc.; Sharad Kislaya from CARE; Kavita Tiwari from WaterAid, Sonal Gaurishanker from Water.org; and Ishita Kapur from Institute for Sustainable Communities.

This post does not represent the views or positions of the U.S. Agency for International Development or the U.S. Government