Social injustice root of crisis in business of water

Social injustice root of crisis in business of water

Today 884 million people have no access to a safe supply of water, while the UN has estimated that by 2030 more than half the world’s population will live in areas at high risk of water scarcity.

It’s not surprising that the corporate world is becoming more and more aware that growing demand and competition for water is creating an uncertain future. Water has now become big business.

There is interconnectedness between the issue of people’s access to water, companies with a vested interest in water for business needs, and companies focusing on emerging markets. This global crisis positions people’s right to access safe water as a critical component of businesses responding to the challenges of growing demand and competition for water resources.

Businesses reliant on using water in direct operations and across supply chains — in particular multinational companies — are increasingly recognising the political, social, economic and environmental risks linked to water. Ultimately, if people are unable to access water due to the activities of a company, the company’s reputation and licence to operate is put at risk.

In response to this we have seen a proliferation of high-profile campaigns relating to water from some of the world’s leading companies.

All tend to have common themes: highlighting the good work that they are doing to minimise the amount of water used in production, cutting down on the level of pollution arising from industrial processes, and headlining that they are spending money to ensure more people have access to a clean safe supply of water.

The commitments made by the world’s leading companies are to be applauded. However, when faced with the reality that almost a billion people are currently living without safe water, and coupled with risk for their own operations, it is clear that businesses must reassess their game plan.

Feel-good campaigns are not enough. The private sector, governments and civil society all need to scale up their efforts if we are to achieve equitable access to water for the world’s poorest people. Alongside campaigns and initiatives to provide water, businesses must address the causes behind the social injustice at the root of the crisis — not only from a humanitarian perspective, but to ensure that business manages the shared risk that a low supply of water entails.

The impact of water poverty on the developing world is immense — particularly on child health, girls’ education prospects, and women’s welfare and livelihoods.

Women forgo school, work

Many women and children in rural areas of developing countries spend hours each day walking kilometres to collect water from unprotected sources such as open wells, muddy dugouts or streams — often forgoing school or work.

In urban areas women can face hours standing in queues at water points where the liquid may come on tap for one or two hours a day, or they are faced with collecting it from polluted waterways, or from vendors at high prices and from other dubious sources. Often dirty and unsafe, this water can be lethal.

This year a systematic review by ‘The Lancet’ pointed to diarrhoea as the biggest killer of children in sub-Saharan Africa. Ninety per cent of diarrhoeal cases in the developing world are caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation — killing more children than AIDS, measles and malaria combined.

With such fatal consequences for human development, it is simply not enough for companies to internalise the issue through sound water resource management systems (this should be standard practice), or to invest in community water schemes and feel that their part in the jigsaw is complete.

Companies do not operate in a vacuum and need to think of their role in the wider socio-political mix. We are now at a stage when companies, donors, civil society organisations and governments need to come to together to address and mitigate shared risks.

There are many blockages currently stopping us from achieving a vision of a world where everyone has access to water and sanitation, from regulatory failings and lack of enforcement, issues of capacity and resources, ineffective prioritisation and coordination of funding to a lack of available and reliable data in a catchment area.

Such issues clearly create challenges for companies in their pursuit to maintain legal and social license to operate. But more importantly they create growing difficulties for some of the world’s poorest people to have access to water.

Only by broadening their approach and actively addressing the areas of shared risk through cooperative and integrated approaches will companies be able to truly make a lasting contribution to the world’s water crisis.

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