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In The Quest Of A Soft Path For Water In The Food Industry

World Water Congress 2015 Edinburgh Scotland
7. Valuing water : monetary and non-monetary dimensions
Author(s): Catalina Silva-Plata
Elsa João

Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Strathclyde1

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 7: Global challenges for water governance,




Water is a vital natural resource upon which all human and environmental activities depend. Climate change, future population growth and consuming trends are factors that pose major uncertainties with regards to the future availability of this resource (WWAP, 2012). The soft path for water concept was first proposed as a paradigm shift in the water management area. It is centred in the sustainable delivery and use of water-related services matched to the needs of end users, rather than seeking sources of new supply (Gleick, 2003). The concept was conceived as a way for governments and societies to embed water sustainability principles in their policies (Brooks and Brandes, 2011). This paper argues that this concept has also potential implementation in the water policies of corporations.


Food is responsible for high amounts of water withdrawals in the world as crops and livestock need it for their growth and processing. Agriculture accounts for 70% of these withdrawals while industry for 20% (WWAP, 2012). The food industry is an interesting case as it joins both the agriculture and manufacture sectors. This research investigates for the first time the adoption of the soft path for water in the food manufacturing industry by analysing a sample of companies in the UK. This paper presents the method utilised, followed by an analysis of the results and the conclusions obtained.


The first step of this research aimed to define the soft path for water elements for the food corporate sector. A multi-criteria model was constructed based on the review of relevant literature and the consultation with 16 experts in the field. This model set up the baseline criteria for analysing the data obtained from the sample. It consists of the following five themes, each of which has elements of the proposition of what a soft path for water means for the corporate food sector:

- Setting the ground: water awareness & re-evaluation of water services
- Knowing the environment: knowledge of impact & knowledge of environmental limits
- Internal action: efficiency, technology adoption & staff engagement
- External action: community & stakeholder engagement
- Influence on water governance: engagement in the water public policy area

A sample of 67 companies from the UK's food industry who have voluntarily committed to reduce their water consumption by 20% by 2020 were chosen for this study. These companies were selected due to their existing commitment to adopt better water practices in their policies. Data was collected from both primary and secondary sources, which included: eight interviews, 12 questionnaires, 32 environmental reports, 57 websites and 22 published case studies. The analysis of the data was conducted following the elements of the proposed model and the results obtained are presented and discussed in the next section.


The evaluation of the extent to which the soft path for water had been implemented in the food industry was pursued through a series of 21 indicators. These indicators relate to the themes of the multi-criteria model proposed and each one was formulated in form of a question that could be answered in four possible ways: yes, no, difficult to assess and no evidence. Table 1 presents the summary of the overall results obtained per theme.

'Internal action' was the category with the highest evidence of adoption; this is anticipated as the companies are already committed to increase their internal water efficiencies in order to achieve their reduction target. One of the key findings was the percentages of unknowns obtained for each category; this is potentially influenced by the range of sources collected but raises the question of the type of data companies report. This also indicates that a more consistent reporting that specifically involves the elements of the proposed model is needed. In other words, there is a degree of uncertainty involved on whether or not each theme has been adopted in the analysed sample. The results also show that the highest uncertainty was obtained in the 'influence of water governance' theme, which points out the complexity involved in the evaluation of this category.


This study evaluated the potential adoption of the soft path for water concept in the food industry and analysed 67 companies in the UK already committed to reduce their water consumption. A five-element model was proposed to determine the extent to which the soft path concept had been implemented. The model categories are: 'setting the ground', 'knowing the environment', 'internal action', 'external action' and 'influence on water governance'.

Results indicate that most of the efforts have been done through efficiency and technology adoption in the companies' internal processes ('internal action'). However, evidence of adoption in all the other four themes was found but in a lesser degree. One of the key findings was the lack of evidence involved in each of the categories, which brings a level of uncertainty on whether or not they have been adopted. In conclusion, there is an indication of some extent of implementation of the soft path for water in the sample evaluated but further efforts are required to be fully adopted.

1. Brooks, D.B. and Brandes, O.M. (2011). Why a Water Soft Path, Why Now and What Then? International Journal of Water Resources Development 27 (2), 315–344.

2. Gleick, P. H. (2003). Global freshwater resources: soft-path solutions for the 21st century. Science 302(5650),1524-1528.

3. WWAP (World Water Assessment Programme) (2012). The United Nations World Water Development Report 4: Managing Water under Uncertainty and Risk. Paris, UNESCO.

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