UN Global Compact on the business of water

Clean drinking water...not self-evident for ev...

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The Un Global Compact have issued a guide for business in order for them to reduce the risks that is associated with poor water management.

As access to fresh water is becoming more and more scares in some areas of the world the UN is calling upon business to work strategically to help communities make the best use of the resources that is available to them. The guideline is made up of five principles for responsible business engagement in water policy. 

  • Responsible engagement should be driven by a genuine interest in efficient, equitable, and ecologically sustainable water management.
  • There should be a clear division of public and private sector roles, with businesses supporting the government’s mandate.
  • Responsible engagement promotes inclusiveness and meaningful partnership.
  • Businesses should recognize the connections between water and other policy arenas, and be mindful of the environmental, social, cultural, and political context.
  • Companies engaged in water policy must be transparent and accountable for their actions.

It would seem that the UN is taking yet another step towards leaving more responsibility on business and asking them to govern on their own.

I think there are several practical things to consider when asking business to “take over” such a important infrastructure system as water really is.

  • First thing that springs to mind is the principle of “do no harm”. As a business you are foremost govern by the market. No government will be able to enforce its powers however small if there is no market to govern. So if for some reason the market can’t sustain a water treatment plant it will leave… simple as that.
  • Second, if the intellectual and practical understanding of how to manage water facilities is left to the private actors then, over time, will the capacity of the local community to take over responsibility be diminished.
  • Third, water is a strategic resource. Some communities will have others have not. There is evidence that suggests that more future conflicts will be over the access to clean water. How will private companies respond to these conflicts? If they leave what will happen next.
  • My last point is related to the principles. How do you measure companies “genuine interest in efficient, equitable, and ecologically sustainable water management”. I’m sure that some people believed that BP had a “genuine interest” to go beyond petroleum but what happened when it was put to the test.       

It makes me think of the management mantra “Trust is good, Control is better but investigative search is best.” I’m deeply committed to CSR and a free market. But businesses and governments alike must be able to see the limits of what you can leave to the market and sill live with the consequences. The market is a hard place even for the most committee and competent so do not leav it to the world poorest people to fight the battles.

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