Faculty and students at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business are deep in water. Three different Darden courses spanning three academic areas – accounting; global economies and markets; and strategy, ethics and entrepreneurship – submerge students in the global business of water.
U.Va. students also benefit from a cross-disciplinary course on water and sustainability taught by Darden professor Peter Debaere; Paolo D’Odorico, an environmental sciences professor and hydrology expert in the College of Arts & Sciences; and Brian Richter, director of global freshwater strategies at the Nature Conservancy and an adjunct faculty member in the School of Architecture and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. In the spring of 2014, Darden students interested in business and sustainability factors involving water will have the opportunity to dive in with Debaere and Richter during the course “Global Economics of Water,” which will be tailored for MBA students.
In his new class, Debaere’s students will study sustainability through the lens of water and economics. They will consider a number of questions: How does globalization interact with water availability? How does water use interlock with sustainable development? How can water be managed more efficiently, and what challenges do firms face in this respect? Is there a role for water markets?
Debaere notes that there is growing interest in the water markets of Australia, Chile and the U.S., and that these should appeal to business students in particular.
“Here’s the concept: In a region where water is scarce, it may well be that water is not used optimally,” he said. “For example, high-water value activities include irrigation for maintaining an olive orchard. Low-value activities include lawn care or washing a car. In the case of a water shortage, a water market makes it possible for the person with low water value activities to sell part of his water supply to the person engaging in high water value activities.”
Why is an international economist interested in water and getting his students involved?
“Suppose water was like air, available everywhere on the planet above ground. We wouldn’t have to worry about supply,” Debaere said. “The problem is that water is not always where it’s needed, when it’s needed. Some countries have more than they need, while others have less.
“This unequal distribution of water will affect what countries produce and trade, and it is this link between water and international economics that triggered my interest in water,” he added. “It is also this awareness of the broader, global context of the environment within which firms operate that I want to instill in our students.”
What’s more, students receive a lesson in corporate social sustainability – how a company can behave to reduce harmful impacts on the environment.
Darden professor Andy Larson’s “Sustainable Innovation and Enterprise” course also asked students to consider the opportunities for new ideas in sustainability and water. Last fall, she introduced her students to Jon Freedman, global leader in government relations for GE Power and Water, and Francesca McCann, managing director for Global Water Strategies. The two discussed the state of the world’s water supply, future technologies that could assure water for all and opportunities to invest in water stocks and water-focused companies.
According to Larson, these guests allowed students to see new opportunities for the field of water sustainability and ponder tough questions.
“It’s obvious to anyone who thinks about it. We can’t exist without water, obviously. And our economy cannot exist without plentiful, clean supplies of water,” Larson said during a recent Darden BusinessCast interview. “And across the world as we look at economic development, close to 4 billion people are moving into what they call the ‘consumer class.’ Water issues are salient to each one of those communities. The future economic development of those cities, those communities, those areas, regions is entirely dependent on the sufficient availability and quality of water.”
Freedman addressed hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which releases natural gas from the ground and produces water – and has also been a target for controversy. He also discussed water desalination, water purification and water reuse. McCann reported on the water sector as one that is ripe for investing, including wastewater infrastructure firms, and water equipment and service companies. (McCann and Freedman share additional insights in Darden’s Greenpod.)
Katherine Neebe, a 2004 Darden alumna, also recognized the impact of water scarcity on the planet and on commerce and set out to do something about it. In her role as manager for business and industry at the World Wildlife Fund, Neebe saw the wisdom in forming partnerships to tackle the world’s water problems. The organization partnered with the Coca-Cola Company to complete several conservation initiatives around the world, including restoration of several of the world’s most important river basins: the Yangtze, Mekong, Danube and Rio Grande/Rio Bravo rivers, Lake Nissa, Mesoamerican reef catchments and Southeast U.S. rivers and streams.
“When I started working on our global partnership with The Coca-Cola Company, I really thought that we had a model and a path forward for collaboration. We wanted to see how it would work and then share it more broadly with future leaders,” Neebe said.
So she and her World Wildlife Fund colleague Kristin Treier, a senior program officer , made several visits to Darden to meet with professor Richard Brownlee, who teaches accounting. Together, the three of them began crafting a teaching case about the effectiveness of for-profit and nonprofit partnerships in support of global sustainability.
“One of the things that most interests me about our work with the Coca-Cola Company is that, on one hand, it’s a natural fit. On the other hand, there are inherent and natural risks for the Coca-Cola Company’s brand and for our brand as we shape our work and remain credible in this space,” Neebe said. “For me, the real issue to wrestle with is, ‘How do you choose the right partner to really address global challenges so effectively?’”
It’s a point that MBA students will debate as they explore the case in Brownlee’s “Business and Sustainability” class. They’ll also learn about the progress made through the World Wildlife Fund/Coca-Cola collaboration.
“We’ve seen a lot of successes on the ground,” Treier said. “One example is along the Mekong River Basin in Vietnam’s Pang Chen National Park. WWF and Coca-Cola worked there to help pass a new management statute to improve habitats. Since then, we’ve seen the return of bird species.
“Coca-Cola is a water business in many ways. Without water, they don’t have a business. They talk about that quite a lot and it gives us a common, central focus.”
Neebe added, “There are so many questions and nuances about this type of work. Sustainability touches so many different things – livelihoods, nature and the global economy. I’m excited to see how students learn from our case and then potentially apply some of these lessons moving forward in their own careers.” (Neebe and Treier also shared their story for in a podcast interview.)