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World Water Week blog: is corporate action on water security coming of age?

28 August 2012

Yesterday at World Water Week I attended a session on the CEO Water Mandate, the UN initiative that brings together leading global companies to aid in the development, implementation and disclosure of water sustainability policies and practices.

The first thing apparent from the companies sat around the table was that the agenda has really moved on. Long gone is the talk of what corporates ought to be doing. Instead, questions revolve around how best to achieve it.

Here are a couple of key themes from the session:

Where does corporate responsibility start and end?

Some companies are now involved in the provision of clean water to their local communities. Is this going too far? Is it a company's responsibility to provide water for domestic use in the vicinity of its operations? Well, the jury is still out. There is a risk that doing this extends the expectations of local communities to potentially beyond what is reasonable or sustainable but, as with all water issues, it has to be considered in the local context.

Often the urge to step in comes from the local government failing to provide a clean and secure water source for the local community. There was a good deal of discussion around how companies relate to government, particularly local government. While in the short-term jumping in to make an immediate impact feels right, the consensus view is that trying to take a longer-term view is best, where a real partnership and sense of shared responsibility is forged.

The importance of being local

It's fair to say that a number of companies have already made real progress in understanding water risk and its impact on the bottom line. The step forward that we're witnessing now is an increasing awareness of water risk at the local level.

With water, a single company or even single country approach doesn't work. There isn't a single water risk per company and each is different and unique depending on the specific watershed and local factors. Tackling water at this level is more difficult and more complex but the group was clear that it's the right thing to do.

Don't go it alone

Because water is so multifaceted, it's too large an issue for one company or even one sector to tackle alone. The issues are often too long-term and, paradoxically, often too immediate for a single player to address on their own. There was a definite feeling around the table that partnership and collaboration is the right path, but questions do remain about how to structure that relationship. Here, again, the answer isn't straightforward. In certain circumstances partnerships need to be formalised with specific roles, responsibilities and funding. But sometimes a less formal approach will work. In South Africa there is a Strategic Water Partnership Network which allows companies and the public sector to informally engage on key issues where respective capabilities can improve the water situation on the ground. Be it formal or more informal, I predict a new era of greater corporate collaboration on water security.

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