The Water Benefit Standard: Getting technical with the TAC

An interview with Dr. James Pittock, BSc, PhD, who is a Senior Lecturer at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University, College of Asia and the Pacific and ANU College of Medicine, Biology and Environment. He is also a Water Benefit Standard Technical Advisory Committee member.

Given the other water programmes out there, why did you decide to participate in The Gold Standard Water Benefit Standard?

There are many water programmes that define elements of good management; however these rely on altruism, reputation and cost savings to drive better water use practices. The WBS is unique in offering certified project operators access to additional revenue to achieve good water management faster and on a much bigger scale. I believe that the establishment of a water benefits market will drive innovation in water conservation, accounting and financing that is essential if the world’s water crisis is to be effectively addressed.

What are the metrics and limits when measuring water stress, habitat, hydrology and cumulative impacts within a project’s area of influence?

The availability of water differs greatly around the globe. As most people live near freshwaters, these ecosystems are among the most degraded on Earth. Because water moves in a global cycle, we have to be very careful that when we change practises that we are not unwittingly taking water away from a beneficial use. For example, if less water is used (‘saved’) on irrigation farms, it may reduce recharge of aquifers that provide the base flows of an adjacent river, impacting badly on people and the environment. For this reason WBS projects need to quantify not only water use at the project site, but also the impacts of the proposed change on the entire river basin and any aquifer.

How do you address risk within a given basin?

To ensure that a Water Benefit Standard project maximises benefits and identifies and minimises any risks, proponents must undertake a multi-faceted assessment. Species and ecosystems of conservation significance must be identified to ensure that there is sufficient water to sustain them. The project must ensure that there are not negative impacts on the quantity, quality and timing of flows. Another important element is ensuring that the river remains connected along its length and with its floodplain to support movement of fish and other environmental values. A range of social risks must also be assessed.

It seems difficult to set “a common currency” when the nature of water projects varies so widely. Can you tell me about the discussions the TAC had when defining the unit?

Unlike carbon, a tonne of water in a desert may be worth much more than an equal volume of water in a rainforest. Similarly, a litre of treated water supply to people costs more than a litre of untreated water supplied to farms. So deciding the value of a litre of water conserved or supplied in different WBS projects was not easy. Consequently the TAC decided that more Water Benefit Certificates should be awarded for the same volume of water in supply and sanitation projects because of their greater costs and the benefits for people in reducing poverty.

What’s next for the Water Benefit Standard? How do you see it evolving in the future?

The Water Benefit Standard is new and so we will have a lot to learn from how the first two agreed methodologies work on the ground, with respect to water supply and sanitation, and also with more efficient sugar cane irrigation. I look forward to the development of new methodologies for water conservation that extend the thematic range and geographical application of the Standard. I also hope that other programmes for better water management begin to use the Water Benefit Standard as a financing mechanism for faster and larger uptake of conservation practices.

About Dr. Jamie Pittock

Dr. Jamie Pittock is Senior Lecturer at the Fenner School of Environment and Society. His research focusses on environmental governance, climate change adaptation, energy and sustainable management of water. Jamie manages major research projects on irrigation and water in Africa (Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe) and the lower Mekong.

Since 2010 Jamie has also been Director of International Programs for the UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance, and he continues research programs that link Australian and southern African expertise to improve management of water and agriculture.

Jamie’s PhD examined integration between management of freshwater ecosystems and responses to climate change. His research examined how institutions at the international, national and river basin scales managed freshwater ecosystems and climate change. This research focussed on the interplay between the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. National and basin scale research involved case studies from Australia, Brazil, China, the European Union, India, Mexico, South Africa, Tanzania and the United Kingdom.

Prior to joining ANU, Jamie worked for WWF international as Director of their Global Freshwater Program on conservation of wetlands, water use in agriculture, and river basin management.