Corporate engagement with water, beyond the privatization debate

By Farhad Mukhtarov. Like it or not, there are strong private interests involved in managing water resources. Water is being bought and sold, in bottles and in concession contract for the right to supply drinking water. And often, it is the source of lucrative profits made from the sales of a resource that buyers may actually already have in abundance, as Richard Wilk argues in his popular paper.

The role of the private sector in water governance is both widely covered and blissfully ignored. Water privatization and private sector’s role in water supply and sanitation services have been hotly debated since the 1990s. However, we know very little about the private sector’s involvement in shaping discourses on water governance and policy instruments. Especially big is our gap in understanding how businesses attempt to shape discourses that define water as an economic or a social good, as a private or public property. A number of knowledge organizations function in water governance and may have links with the private sector. A good example of why this matters is the multiple ways of framing the ‘global water crisis’. In 2000 in the World Water Vision, the report of the World Commission for Water launched at the World Water Forum in The Hague stated that the crisis of water is the crisis of funding and infrastructure. The amount to solve the issue was estimated at 180 billion USD. Apparently, the report argued, such an amount must come from the private sector, subtly legitimizing water as an economic good. Something must have changed later in the 2000s as the 2006 UNDP Human Development Report, famously stated that the water crisis is the crisis of governance in the first place, and this needs to be dealt with before anything else. Framing this issue has enormous ramifications for who provides water and how, and to the business opportunities in water.

The new issue of Water Alternatives to come out later in 2012 will deal with a new form of corporate engagement with water, that is of water as part of  Corporate Social Responsibility of companies, as well as potential business opportunities from ‘water offsetting’, payments for watershed services, and water credits sale. This is a new emerging form of corporate engagement with water that certainly warrants more attention in the future and is inspired by developments in biodiversity conservation and climate change policies.

Finally, there is lucrative business of bottled water. While it has become everyday commodity for us in the developed world, and for the rich of the poorer world, essentially, bottled water is a product that many of its consumers may well do without. The 9 digit amounts generated from bottled water sale are nothing but marvelously designed and executed marketing. While bottled water is widely seen as a separate field of business that that of CSR, water privatization and environmental consultants in water, there may be interesting parallels as framing of water in one way or another may affect demand for bottled water, as well as availability of drinking water in many countries in the global South would certainly decrease the profits of vendors.

Thus, I would certainly call attention of researchers to the issues of private sector’s engagement with water, but would like to broaden the scope of the debate from the important, but tired theme of water privatization. The following issues need attention in addition to the continuous treatment of private investment in water infrastructure:

1) Analysis of water businesses in attempts to participate in global knowledge networks and knowledge forums in order to shape discourses along the neo-liberal lines. The greater importance of the Internet and Web 2.0 in doing so may be of crucial importance here…

2) Analysis of the environmental consultancy industry, which often relies of the hegemonic discourses and reproduces them uncritically in the quest for profits, as well as under the pressure to produce quickly and assert legitimacy in short period of time, that would normally be derived from reference to established discourses and policy tools in water (such as water privatization, IWRM or river basin management);

3) Analysis of corporate engagement with water, which manifests itself in water footprints, water offsetting, water credits and the opening markets for payments for watershed services.

4) Analysis of marketing strategies and possible effects on ‘bottled water’ business with changing supply and demand for water resources in both global North and global South.

What matters for now however, is to realize the crucial role of the transnational private sector in shaping debates and having the stake in global water governance, and proceed with research and management accordingly. Such issues may be given more attention by the calls for proposals within EU FP7, as well as be discussed at the World Water Week, World Water Forum and conferences. A good example is a recent conference on Corporate engagement with environment – Nature Inc. with Development and Change publishing papers from this. Perhaps, we should get a bit more critical of the corporate sector in the water sector and study it with more scrutiny.



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