Moving forward: Unlocking Corporate Action on Water That Serves the Public Interest



The existence of competing economic incentives for long-term sustainable thinking and short-term profit motives reveals a number of complex and difficult questions facing the corporate water stewardship community, such as:

  • Multinational companies in many cases are a great boon to local economies, in both developed and emerging economic contexts. What is the appropriate balance between “high economic value” water uses and public interest water uses?
  • How can companies already driving sustainable action on water be encouraged to offer a louder voice within their value chain and in the wider business community?
  • Should companies avoid operating in or sourcing from water-stressed regions, or rather maintain a presence in these areas, while making investments that address long-term water challenges?
  • In many parts of the world, businesses and governments alike are complicit in a system that often results in unbalanced private sector representation in water policy. What role can and should companies play in facilitating more democratic processes (especially in areas of weak governance)?
  • What can companies that are genuinely interested in facilitating sustainable water management do to ease the skepticism of potential partners?
  • How can companies be encouraged to consider long-term profit drivers in the face of immediate short-term profit motives and shareholder pressures that may incentivize unsustainable practices?
  • How can companies and others encourage increased investment in areas of water stress and weak water governance, when these are identified as “high-risk” locations?

These are difficult questions, and the conflicts inherent within them will certainly invite some to argue that companies should not play a meaningful role in public water management. It must be recognized, however, that companies have always engaged in water policy, and given the very significant challenges facing global water security, dogmatic stances for or against business engagement not only fail to reflect reality, but are likely to be counterproductive (Hepworth and Orr 2013). Instead, these tensions and questions should highlight the need to strengthen positive incentives for responsible and sustainable private sector action and begin a meaningful discussion on what that can and should look like, as the CEO Water Mandate and others in the water stewardship space are doing. Such a discussion can shed light on unsustainable practices where they exist, highlight examples of beneficial corporate action, and ultimately help determine the most appropriate role for the private sector in addressing our shared global water challenges in the 21st Century.

At this writing, the United Nations and the international community have embarked on an ambitious process to develop a Post-2015 Sustainable Development Framework that will very likely result in a set of Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”) to replace the Millennium Develop Goals (MDGs) when they expire in 2015. It is widely expected that water and sanitation will find expression as either a standalone goal, or at the very least strongly integrated within other goals. Whatever the outcome, the ongoing process and negotiations reveal a strong conviction by governments that the private sector will have a critical role to play in collaborating with the public sector and civil society with respect to water solutions in the future. This belief was made abundantly clear during the special session on water and sanitation convened by the UN General Assembly on 18 February 2014. Following an opening address by the UN Secretary-General in which he highlighted the CEO Water Mandate as a public-private collaboration platform, UN Member States engaged in a two-day discussion and dialogue during which the importance of partnering with the business community was repeatedly emphasized (UN General Assembly, “Water, Sanitation, and Sustainable Energy,” 18 February 2014).

In summary, there is compelling evidence to suggest that business’s role should not be limited to simply implementing operational efficiencies and being accountable for direct water-related adverse impacts on ecosystems and communities; it should be expanded such that companies are encouraged, if not expected, to make a positive contribution to broader watershed challenges that affect a wide range of stakeholders and actors.

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