WWF’s water stewardship vision: Measurably improve river basin status by radically scaling up private sector collaboration, boardroom strategy and investments.

At WWF, water stewardship is all about how we work with companies to scale positive impacts on nature and water. The term itself, water stewardship, is defined by the Alliance for Water Stewardship as the use of water that is socially and culturally equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial, achieved through a stakeholder-inclusive process that involves site-and catchment-based actions. Critically, we find ourselves in a world where the water ecosystems, that regulate the flow and quality of water and upon which business depends, have been heavily degraded through human use and are being placed under further pressure by a changing climate. For businesses and their shareholders, this means not only an uncertain operating environment in terms of physical risks such as locally accessing quantities and quality of water, but also growing risks to their reputation and uncertain regulation. Similarly, for other stakeholders in basins, including communities and nature, these challenges pose a potential existential threat.

Yet with water stewardship we all have the potential to embrace a concept that can not only embed climate resilience in businesses and their value chains, but moreover offers an opportunity to create value for all.



The concept of risk is a framing that is well understood within the business and investor community. It has, and continues to be, an effective on ramp for companies on their water stewardship journey. As water risk exposure continues to grow, WWF continues to rise to the challenge through continual enhancements of its Risk Filter Suite - a leading tool that supports businesses and enables them to understand their water, biodiversity and climate risks.

The history of water stewardship at WWF



WWF and water stewardship



For over two decades, WWF pioneered the concept of water stewardship. We helped to coin the term and have worked with businesses to not simply lower their water usage, but to reshape their thinking when it comes to the roles of businesses in catchments and our freshwater ecosystems. As we have helped to grow the water stewardship community, the pathway has been made up of shifting phases each with their own zeitgeist.

Our most recent reflection has prompted a renewed focus on doing better collectively through scaling and impacts. Our freshwater ecosystems, down over 83% since 1970, are in a state of emergency and we need to act swiftly and at scale. This means fostering community growth, and driving a shift from individual efforts to a more multilateral, ecosystem or landscape-based approach. WWF also recognizes that philanthropy and single-organizational approaches alone will not get us to that scale and accordingly, aims to lead in scaling investments in basins to an array of solution providers in order to meet the needs of freshwater ecosystems, essential for all life on Earth.

How do we work with businesses?

There are 3 ways in which WWF partners with business, namely: 

  • PHILANTHROPIC: Funding from businesses used directly to pursue WWF conservation priorities
  • MARKETING: Funding from businesses used to branding and joint communications/marketing and sometimes specific education
  • TRANSFORMATIONAL: Funding from businesses used to pursue work that reduces negative impacts and/or increase positive impacts in corporate value chains

Of these forms of engagement, our water stewardship work is most heavily focused on the third one - transformational. As work with companies on their practices, WWF works to gradually ratchet up performance, recognizing that indeed, water stewardship is a journey. We characterize that journey into three general stages: (A) Initial starting practices (B) Standard good practices (C) Leading practices.

Water Stewardship ladder

The WWF Water Stewardship ladder was designed to illustrate the journey companies tend to make with water over time. It was not intended to be a checklist but a depiction of the evolving nature of corporate water management through to water stewardship. The journey is iterative, not linear, with companies maturing practices based on their unique context. 

More recently, we have sought to simplify the ladder into three phases: (A) Initial starting practices describe a level of action more closely resembling traditional water management; (B) standard good practices are intended to describe a level of action where stewardship and management are blended, and lastly; (C) leading practices represent full stewardship.


Collective Action

Water, as a shared resource, can only be solved together. Companies must recognise that working with others and at various scales (global fora to local water groups) is a foundational element of a robust water stewardship strategy. We define collective action as “a coordinated set of engagements among interested parties aimed at pooling resources to address shared freshwater challenges within a basin”. In the face of a deep loss of freshwater biodiversity and an ongoing rise in shared water challenges, there is an urgent need for improved collaboration across sectors to address water challenges. 
Collective action requires trust, inclusivity, and diverse partnerships across sectors for water security and climate resilience. As such, our ability to co-develop community level engagements, combined with the trust that our brand can enable to foster collaboration, gives WWF a unique responsibility and opportunity to advance collective action on freshwater. Increasingly, this is where we, as WWF-CEE, focus our energy to scale impact in the Danube basin. Within different sub-basins of the Danube, we will adopt different roles, depending on needs and the presence of peer organizations.

Why Take Action on Water?

Water is fundamental to our societies and economies
All people and economic sectors need water - agriculture, industry and most forms of energy production are not possible without freshwater. Yet, water resources are under increasing pressure from over-abstraction and pollution as well as climate change impacts and the continuing rapid loss of freshwater ecosystems and biodiversity – 83% of freshwater species populations have been lost since 1970, much faster than terrestrial or marine species.

The relationship between business and water is informed by dependencies and impacts: degradation of freshwater resources can create physical risk to businesses that depend on them. Negative impacts on water, in their turn, can create regulatory, reputational, and other risks for business. The described risks can occur in operations or anywhere across the value chain, up- and downstream.

Our initiatives: The Living Danube Partnership

The Living Danube Partnership is a unique, cross‑sectoral partnership that has brought together WWF‑CEE, the Coca‑Cola Foundation and the Coca‑Cola system as well as the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) to promote the conservation and restoration of wetlands in the Danube basin. Supported by a USD 4.4 million (EUR 3.73 million) grant from The Coca‑Cola Foundation, the eight‑year partnership has sought to restore vital wetlands, rivers and floodplains along the River Danube and its tributaries, aiming to increase the river capacity by the equivalent of 4,800 Olympic sized swimming pools (12 million m3) and to restore over 7,422 football pitches worth of wetland habitat (53 km2) by 2021.

Starting in 2024, the partnership for the Danube is being extended to further interested companies.

How to start - for companies waiting at the Start line

First step for a business is understanding dependence on water, both directly and indirectly. That involves quantifying your water use not just in operations but also in the supply chain, and the water risks related to that. Consultancy companies offering sustainability-related services can assist with this. One tool for this is the WWF Water Risk Filter (and the Biodiversity Risk Filter), which is available for free online. Once risks are understood, measures for addressing related risk according to targets set can be planned, starting with actions within the own operations and supply chain, and continuing by engaging other stakeholders in collective action to ensure the sustainable management of the water resources which the business depends on.

Living Danube Platform: Anyone/any business seriously interested in climate resilience and water stewardship is invited to join what we are calling the “Living Danube Platform” – a loose platform or community dedicated to promoting climate resilience and water stewardship across the Danube Basin. How this develops depends in part on the the needs and interests of participating companies and organizations. We already conducted and are planning a number of actions to build this community, including a conference and a series of sustainability and water-themed workshops and webinars that have taken place at regional and country levels. Please contact Emöke Gyorfi (egyorfi@wwfcee.org) if you are interested in getting involved in this platform.

Living Danube Partnership: We are also looking for a handful of companies to join us in a core group of organisations to drive action for improvement of climate resilience and water stewardship across the Danube Basin. Members of the Living Danube Partnership should have a substantial and longer-term commitment to promoting climate resilience and water stewardship across the Danube Basin. We would expect participating companies to set an example in terms of their sustainability, particularly their use and handling of water (e.g. by having a freshwater strategy and management according to the AWS standard) and to commit substantial financial and other (e.g. communications or technical) resources.

Please contact Emöke Györfi, egyorfi@wwfcee.org if you want to get involved in the Partnership.