Defining public water policy
Public water policy is often understood strictly as the legislation and regulations that underpin water management. This Guide takes a holistic view of water policy that encompasses all efforts to define the rules, intent, and instruments with which governments manage human uses of water, control water pollution, and meet environmental water needs. It considers not only the legal and regulatory framework, but also the planning around water resource allocation and the implementation practices by water managers and other stakeholders that support this framework.
Defining the end goal: Sustainable water management
Sustainable water management (SWM) is a broad concept that means different things to different people. Environmentalists may focus on ensuring adequate environmental flows to sustain ecosystems. Human rights activists may consider SWM to be the point when all humans receive adequate supplies of safe water. Economists may think of it as when water pricing can sustain a system’s operational, maintenance, and capital costs over the long term. A business might think of it as when reliable access to a water resource is secured, thereby reducing business risks.
This Guide presents SWM as a balance of all these elements. At its most basic level, SWM is the management of water resources that holistically addresses equity, economy, and the environment in a way that maintains the supply and quality of water for a variety of needs over the long term and ensures meaningful participation by all affected stakeholders.
The elements of public water policy
Sustainable water management might be thought of as the state when four domains of sustainability are effectively implemented. They are:
- Social sustainability: Where all humans have equitable access to adequate and affordable water services to meet their health and livelihood requirements, and where citizens and communities play a meaningful role in water governance and decision-making.
- Environmental sustainability: Where water use and management does not compromise biodiversity, the functioning of habitats, or ecological or hydrological processes that are essential to society.
- Economic sustainability: Where water management is affordable and cost effective and economic costs and financial risks are understood, minimized, and balanced in a transparent, socially acceptable way.
- Institutional sustainability: Where institutions tasked with water management have sufficient resources and social legitimacy to function over the long term.
Defining responsible corporate engagement in water policy
A properly enforced, consistent policy and regulatory framework is essential to support SWM, and SWM is essential for businesses to effectively manage water-related risks. Corporate policy engagement is by definition a complement to, rather than a replacement for, water policy and supporting regulatory frameworks. As such, responsible (and by definition, effective) corporate engagement with water policy entails that companies contribute to shared policy goals and support policy that is developed and implemented in a way that is effective, equitable, and inclusive for all water users.
While corporate engagement with public policy has traditionally been understood as direct policy advocacy and lobbying, this Guide promotes a broader approach to corporate engagement in water policy, defining it as corporate water management initiatives that involve interaction with government entities ; local communities; and/or civil society organizations with the goal of advancing: 1) responsible internal company management of water resources within direct operations and supply chains in line with policy imperatives (e.g., legal compliance) and 2) the sustainable and equitable management of the catchment in which companies and their suppliers operate.
By its nature, water is fundamentally a local issue, either because local resource constraints or local supply schemes result in inadequate supply, or because the cumulative impacts of its use have negative consequences for other users, communities, or ecosystems. Including policy implementation at the local level highlights companies’ potential to directly influence and improve these local systems that create business risks.
Yet, water also has the unique quality of connecting sometimes distant upstream and downstream areas; in some places river basins span tens of thousands of kilometers. National water policy has a direct impact on what standards and regulations those catchments are managed against. Defining policy engagement to include engagement with local communities, civil society organizations, and stakeholders substantially broadens the scope of possible engagement actions. This expanded scope can include companies engaging communities while forming internal water policies, supporting academic research on new technologies and management practices, and cooperating with civil society groups to ensure environmental and basic human needs are met, to name a few.