Water and Collective Action



Freshwater management has certain multifaceted and unique characteristics that shape collective action. Water is required for life; it supports community livelihoods and sustains ecosystems. It is also viewed by many as a commodity that enables economic production and consumption. Water is therefore seen as a public good that requires active management for its protection, development, and use as a resource. The use of water is inherently subject to public-good expectations and can easily raise sociopolitical tensions, particularly when a use or waste discharge has, or is perceived to have, negative impacts on local communities or ecosystems.

Water infrastructure such as dams, pipelines, and treatment works have been built around the world to supply water to expanding irrigation and provide services to urban areas, with a substantial increase in this activity since the mid-20th century. When ample water is available (or perceived to be available) in a region, these water development efforts generally do not raise much concern. The main challenges in such contexts are related to the financial and institutional capacity of water managers to reliably and equitably maintain the water supply and treat wastewater discharges from these areas.

If the growing use of water resources is not managed well, competition for water will intensify, and pressures on water-related ecosystem services (e.g., fisheries) can emerge. Social dissent can escalate quickly. These situations require cooperation—and sometimes compromises—among interested parties. They create a need for improved protection and control of water use to achieve economic efficiency, social equity, and ecological sustainability. As the level and complexity of water use increases, so too does the need for sophisticated management institutions and rules, as well as the need to openly engage water users with potentially diverse interests. “Integrated water resources management” (IWRM) has emerged as a widely accepted paradigm for balancing water demands with available supplies, and it places substantial emphasis on the equitable engagement of all parties vested in water access, use, and management.

As depicted in Figure 3, your company and its suppliers reside at a key nexus in the water resource management cycle. Any deficiencies in the water governance, management, or infrastructure that allow water scarcity or conflict to emerge can create a risk for your company or other participants in the catchment. The public sector, supported by an engaged civil society and private sector, has the primary role of making sustainable water management a priority. When the public sector functions effectively, companies with an interest in sustainable water management may share information or consult on decisions through existing multi-interest platforms. However, because the public sector may suffer from inadequate financial resources, a lack of institutional capacity, inadequate governance mechanisms, or other deficiencies, water-related challenges can arise and escalate, creating conditions that may pose unacceptable risks to your company or the catchments in which you operate. Such situations require internal actions (in production or supply chains) to mitigate these risks. In many cases, they will also require collective action among water users and other interests.

Water Resource Management Cycle


Collective action that emerges from such contexts will need to be driven by objectives tied to catchment-level outcomes, as this is the scale at which water-related risks and sustainability opportunities manifest. Such action may include cooperation with a group of companies across operations and supply chains to reduce the overall water demand or wastewater discharge. At times, a business may seek engagements at the regional, national, or global level to create an enabling context for successful catchment-level initiatives.

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