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“Is policy-first the right approach for water?” asks Olam’s Chris Brown



This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation website and is reproduced with permission. The author is Chris Brown, GM for Environmental Sustainability at Olam, who delivered a keynote speech at UC Davis’ Water Policy for Food Security: A Global Conference in October.

Water permeates every part of life, affects every region of the world, and I can’t think of a single industry that doesn’t rely on water at least in part for its continuing operations. It is telling that while water and sanitation have been announced as a Global Goal in their own right at the recent signing of the Sustainable Development Goals in New York, access to clean, safe water also underpins the vast majority of the other 16 goals to end poverty, foster peace and protect the planet by 2030.

Yet water is a finite resource. How do we balance competing demands, knowing full well that they will only increase as population expands, industry grows and the impacts of climate change become ever more significant?

Policy, it would seem, is the Holy Grail. We await it eagerly, spend days, months and even years discussing the minutiae and delving into the detail. But without being joined up across borders, businesses and water basins, it means very little. The last 20 years of deliberation on water policy have yielded very little real impact on the ground.

Why? Water cannot be ring-fenced. We are all guilty of viewing challenges through our own particular lens, assessing impacts and targets based on our own particular silo. But this simply does not work for water.

Water does not respect the boundaries of our administrative systems or the borders of national governments. There are between 250 and 275 transboundary river basins and at least as many transboundary aquifers globally, yet only six of these aquifers have international legal structures that encourage co-operation. Water cannot be siphoned off into its own department, but rather water planning must be a central plank to every policy decision by every department – be that on housing, environment, business or infrastructure. Perhaps even more importantly, these decisions must be consistently reviewed and maintained if they are to have any chance of success. Decisions on water planning can start with good intentions but become unstuck when they are gradually shunted to the bottom of the priority list as time goes on.

We have seen that even when coherent water policies are decided at the top, they often are not cascaded down consistently to the actors on the ground. If the myriad stakeholders in a water landscape aren’t brought in at the earliest possible stage to have a voice in assessing the practicalities and application of policy, it is unlikely to stick. Initiatives like the International Water Stewardship Programme (IWaSP) and WWF’s Water Stewardship Programme are vital in helping the private sector to collaborate with government departments, other businesses, NGOs and communities across boundaries and borders to protect shared freshwater resources.

Meanwhile, I have seen a growing tide of people turning to the private sector for solutions and, more importantly, for action.

Agriculture accounts for around 70% of global water use, yet very few governments prioritise agriculture over industries that generate greater currency revenues for their coffers. If water becomes scarce, it is often farmers, especially smallholders, who feel it first. There is therefore added impetus for agri-businesses (like Olam) to take action to ensure the long-term viability of our supply chains and food security in regions around the world. Not only must we consider our vulnerabilities today but also plan for future scenarios of increased water scarcity, and any measures that governments might take in response. To mitigate these risks, we need action now both to reduce our own water consumption and ensure that other players within our water landscapes are practising responsible water stewardship – and if we wait for policy-makers to make the first move, it may be too late.

The private sector can be catalysts for basin-level collaboration on water management, even when policy is lagging. For example, when setting up Olam Aviv’s coffee plantation and processing mill in Songea district, Tanzania, we needed access to water for our operations and workers without jeopardising the Ruvuma River ecosystem, or the needs of others. It was in our long-term interest to understand the needs of our neighbours if we wanted to be accepted into the community. Lengthy upstream and downstream water assessments and a daily rainfall-runoff model to measure flows informed workshops with village leaders, the Ministry of Water, development agencies and the operators of a local hydropower plant, who happen to be nuns from the local Benedictine St Agnes Chipole Mission.

As a result of all this work, the Upper Ruvuma Catchment Basin Steering Committee was formed to share knowledge and resources for a more coordinated catchment management strategy into the future, and we have since built a 1.5 million m3 dam to collect rainwater to reduce our dependence on the river during the dry season, planted 50,000 shade trees to reduce evapotranspiration from the coffee plants, and are constructing a wastewater treatment wet-mill. Here we’ve seen real, tangible action driven by business needs and cross-sector collaboration across the water basin. And what’s more, learnings from our experience in Tanzania can be shared with partners across our global operations to find local, scalable and durable solutions.

While policies are being deliberated on a global scale, action needs to start happening in a joined up way on the ground. Water is infinitely challenging to measure, monitor or mediate – its very nature means that collaboration is a perquisite to meaningful action on a landscape level. You need the private sector to take the initiative and catalyse action from the ground up as well.

Ideally policy and action will meet in the middle and ensure that sustainable and equitable water use, including access to fresh water and sanitation is not a luxury but a right for generations to come.


Is Wood Burning Sustainable For Your Home?



sustainable wood burning ideas

Wood is a classic heat source, whether we think about people gathered around a campfire or wood stoves in old cabins, but is it a sustainable source of heat in modern society? The answer is an ambivalent one. In certain settings, wood heat is an ideal solution, but for the majority of homes, it isn’t especially suitable. So what’s the tipping point?

Wood heat is ideal for small homes on large properties, for individuals who can gather their own wood, and who have modern wood burning ovens. A green approach to wood heat is one of biofuel on the smallest of scales.

Is Biofuel Green?

One of the reasons that wood heat is a source of so much divide in the eco-friendly community is that it’s a renewable resource and renewable has become synonymous with green. What wood heat isn’t, though, is clean or healthy. It lets off a significant amount of carbon and particulates, and trees certainly don’t grow as quickly as it’s consumed for heat.

Of course, wood is a much less harmful source of heat than coal, but for scientists interested in developing green energy sources, it makes more sense to focus on solar and wind power. Why, then, would they invest in improved wood burning technology?

Homegrown Technology

Solar and wind technology are good large-scale energy solutions, but when it comes to small-space heating, wood has its own advantages. First, wood heat is in keeping with the DIY spirit of homesteaders and tiny house enthusiasts. These individuals are more likely to be driven to gather their own wood and live in small spaces that can be effectively heated as such.

Wood heat is also very effective on an individual scale because it requires very little infrastructure. Modern wood stoves made of steel rather than cast iron are built to EPA specifications, and the only additional necessary tools include a quality axe, somewhere to store the wood, and an appropriate covering to keep it dry. And all the wood can come from your own land.

Wood heat is also ideal for people living off the grid or in cold areas prone to frequent power outages, as it’s constantly reliable. Even if the power goes out, you know that you’ll be able to turn up the heat. That’s important if you live somewhere like Maine where the winters can get exceedingly cold. People have even successfully heated a 40’x34’ home with a single stove.

Benefits Of Biomass

The ultimate question regarding wood heat is whether any energy source that’s dangerous on the large scale is acceptable on a smaller one. For now, the best answer is that with a growing population and limited progress towards “pure” green energy, wood should remain a viable option, specifically because it’s used on a limited scale. Biomass heat is even included in the UK’s Renewable Heat Initiative and minor modifications can make it even more sustainable.

Wood stoves, when embraced in conjunction with pellet stoves, geothermal heating, and masonry heaters, all more efficient forms of sustainable heat, should be part of a modern energy strategy. Ultimately, we’re headed in the direction of diversified energy – all of it cleaner – and wood has a place in the big picture, serving small homes and off-the-grid structures, while solar, wind, and other large-scale initiatives fuel our cities.

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7 Benefits You Should Consider Giving Your Energy Employees



As an energy startup, you’re always looking to offer the most competitive packages to entice top-tier talent. This can be tough, especially when trying to put something together that’s both affordable but also has perks that employees are after.

After all, this is an incredibly competitive field and one that’s constantly doing what it can to stay ahead. However, that’s why I’m bringing you a few helpful benefits that could be what bolsters you ahead of your competition. Check them out below:

Financial Advising

One benefit commonly overlooked by companies is offering your employees financial advising services, which could help them tremendously in planning for their long-term goals with your firm. This includes anything from budgeting and savings plans to recommendations for credit repair services and investments. Try to take a look at if your energy company could bring on an extra person or two specifically for this role, as it will pay off tremendously regarding retention and employee happiness.

Life Insurance

While often included in a lot of health benefits packages, offering your employees life insurance could be an excellent addition to your current perks. Although seldom used, life insurance is a small sign that shows you care about the life of their family beyond just office hours. Additionally, at such a low cost, this is a pretty simple aspect to add to your packages. Try contacting some brokers or insurance agents to see if you can find a policy that’s right for your firm.

Dedicated Time To Enjoy Their Hobbies

Although something seen more often in startups in Silicon Valley, having dedicated office time for employees to enjoy their passions is something that has shown great results. Whether it be learning the piano or taking on building a video game, having your team spend some time on the things they truly enjoy can translate to increased productivity. Why? Because giving them the ability to better themselves, they’ll in turn bring that to their work as well.

The Ability To Work Remotely

It’s no secret that a lot of employers despise the idea of letting their employees work remotely. However, it’s actually proven to hold some amazing benefits. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 95% of employers that allow their employees to telework reported an increased rate of retention, saving on both turnover and sick days. Depending on the needs of each individual role, this can be a strategy to implement either whenever your team wants or on assigned days. Either way, this is one perk almost everyone will love.

Health Insurance

Even though it’s mandated for companies with over 50 employees, offering health insurance regardless is arguably a benefit well received across the board. In fact, as noted in research compiled by KFF, 28.6% of employers with less than 50 people still offered health care. Why is that the case? Because it shows you care about their well-being, and know that a healthy employee is one that doesn’t have to worry about astronomical medical bills.

Unlimited Time Off

This is a perk that almost no employer offers but should be regarded as something to consider. According to The Washington Post, only 1-2% of companies offer unlimited vacation, which it’s easy to see why. A true “unlimited vacation” program could be a firm’s worse nightmare, with employees skipping out every other week to enjoy themselves. However, with the right model in place that rewards hard work with days off, your employees will absolutely adore this policy.

A Full Pantry

Finally, having a pantry full of food can be one perk that’s not only relatively inexpensive but also adds to the value of the workplace. As noted by USA Today, when surveying employees who had snacks versus those who didn’t, 67% of those who did reported they were “very happy” with their work life. You’d be surprised at how much of a difference this could make, especially when considering the price point. Consider adding a kitchen to your office if you haven’t already, and always keep the snacks and drinks everyone wants fully stocked. Doing so will increase morale tremendously.

Final Thoughts

Compiling a great package for your energy company is going to take some time in looking at what you can afford versus what’s the most you can offer. While it might mean cutting back in other areas, having a workforce that feels like you genuinely want to take care of them can take you far. And with so many different benefits to include in your energy company’s package, which one is your favorite? Comment with your answers below!

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