- Understand how current conditions offer a greater incentive for companies to both align their water-related policies and practices with the public interest and engage in shared-water objectives.
- Learn why discouraging companies from contributing to sustainable water management can threaten effective water governance, sustainable development, and economic growth.
Companies will respond to water challenges differently, depending upon the area, sector, resources and levels of risk. While many companies will seek solely to improve their water-use efficiency and ensure adequate wastewater treatment in their operations, others may go beyond their “factory fence-lines” to encourage and facilitate more sustainable water management throughout their supply chain and to engage in the watersheds in which they operate (Pegram et al. 2009, Newborne and Mason 2012, Morrison et al. 2010). The focus of this discussion paper are these companies that engage externally to address water risks through a variety of means.
While many companies are beginning to engage in water policy as a key element of their water-management strategies, some NGOs and academics are calling into question whether such strategies truly advance the public interest. Some, such as the Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU), as detailed in its article “Conflicts, Companies, Human Rights and Water—A Critical Review of Local Corporate Practices and Global Corporate Initiatives,” argue that these strategies in reality perpetuate a history of undue corporate influence on public policy that subverts the public interest in favor of corporate profit (Hall and Lobina 2012). This argument is based largely on the interrelated notions that:
- Companies do not have an economic incentive to promote sustainable conditions beyond their fence-lines (apart from public relations gains).
- Companies have an interest in weak water-related governance, which allows them to continue socially and environmentally harmful, yet profitable, practices; consequently, companies strive to undermine democratic processes.
- Water challenges are not “shared”; many issues that companies consider risks, namely regulation, are actually a boon to communities and ecosystems.
This article sets out to provide nuance to these notions and in some instances outright challenge them. It acknowledges the real threat of corporate policy capture and “greenwashing,” as well as the inherent asymmetries in conceptions and realities of water risk. However, the paper argues that current conditions actually offer a much greater incentive for companies to align their water-related policies and practices with the public interest than in the past. A great opportunity exists for companies, governments, civil society groups, communities, and others to collaborate to achieve shared water- related objectives. Such collective-action undertakings should be encouraged if they are conducted in a way that advances the public interest and aligns with global sustainable development goals.
Further, this paper posits that discouraging or preventing companies from contributing to sustainable water management in cases where they have a clear and demonstrable interest in doing so, and where they have access to vast resources that would not otherwise be available, is actually a significant detriment and threat to effective water governance, sustainable development, and economic growth.