Background on Water and WSIs



Context and Purpose

Increasingly, there is recognition that sustainable water management (SWM) requires action by not only government but also business and civil society. This awareness arises from the underlying concept of integrated water resources management that ensures efficient, equitable, and sustainable development of the world’s limited water resources. Companies that rely on water for their core business (e.g., in the manufacturing of their goods or indirectly in the production of their inputs) recognize that they face water-related risks. Increasing water scarcity and pollution of water sources combined with inadequate water governance systems have led to a clear business case for action, based on the proposition that more effective water management can help address and mitigate such risks. Corporate water stewardship is founded on the notion that businesses can act in a positive manner to manage their risks and simultaneously meet local stakeholder expectations by mitigating adverse impacts on communities and ecosystems, thereby helping to protect a vital shared resource.

Generally defined as the use of water in a way that is socially equitable, environmentally sustainable, and economically beneficial, water stewardship is achieved through a stakeholder-inclusive process that involves site- and basin-based actions. Water stewardship involves organizations taking shared responsibility to pursue meaningful individual and collective actions that benefit people and nature.

As basin-level problems increasingly affect all segments of society, water stewardship initiatives (WSIs) hold exciting potential as an approach to tackling shared water challenges. These WSIs leverage the expertise of businesses working collectively with public institutions, civil society organizations, and other water users at the basin level. As with any new approach, WSIs provide opportunities but can also pose some design and implementation challenges, particularly around ensuring integrity. For example, involving the private sector in the management of a public resource like water must be approached with care to avoid real or perceived problems of “capture”: where undue influence on decision making, skewing of public policy priorities, or privileged access to water resources results through private sector involvement.

As well as making WSIs more impactful, sustainable, and cost-effective, ensuring high levels of integrity will reduce reputational risks that could be barriers to multi-stakeholder cooperation. These guidelines seek to build on the lessons learned from the pioneers of WSIs around the world. Through a practical lens, and focusing on the needs of practitioners, the ultimate aim of these guidelines is to support existing and future WSIs in creating tangible benefits for society by ensuring high levels of integrity and transparency.


Understanding Water Stewardship Initiatives (WSIs)

The initiatives formed between multiple stakeholders in a WSI constitute a form of “collective action” toward a shared water management goal. Collective action can be understood through a four-level taxonomy that is described in Table 1. These four levels of collective action differ in terms of the resource commitments required and the formality of decision-making and governance structures. The WSIs that are the focus of these guidelines reside within the collaborative and integrative levels of engagement. These types of initiatives typically have a degree of formality and focus on working toward common objectives. Integrative partnerships typically require more substantial (and often pooled) resources, and put substantial effort into establishing concrete alignment of interests and objectives among all parties, thereby increasing coordination and establishing clear roles and responsibilities for all parties.


Table 1. Levels of Collective Action Engagement

Level Description
Informative Focuses on coordinating the sharing of information to foster expanded knowledge and increased transparency, familiarity, and trust among interested parties.
Consultative Focuses on convening specific interested parties to exchange ideas and expertise, and to create a shared understanding of needs, interests, and challenges to enable informed, independent decision making by all parties.
Collaborative Seeks to move interested parties closer together and reflects a belief that finding common ground, establishing common objectives, and sharing implementation responsibilities hold the potential to increase both individual and collective effectiveness.
Integrative Emerges when an alignment of interests, resources, decision making, and coordinated actions is desired or needed to meet water-related challenges or opportunities. Interested parties are typically formally convened or have a formal joint structure.


Worth noting is that collective actions (whether WSIs or less structured forms) can have different primary objectives. Generally speaking, they can (1) deliver projects and programs, (2) support the creation of new accountability mechanisms (certification schemes, regulation and policy frameworks, complaint redress mechanisms, etc.), (3) create a resource transfer mechanism (that channels funding, expertise, and in-kind support or products, spare parts, etc., to worthy or needy areas), or (4) provide a dialogue, learning, and innovation platform for stakeholders. Each of these functions brings a different spirit of engagement, calls for different decision-making mechanisms, and may involve a different configuration of participants. Needless to say, ultimately WSIs need to be tailored to fit the context in which they are operating and the goals they are trying to achieve.

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