Pacific Institute Insights

Aligning Two Worlds: Business and the Human Right to Water and Sanitation

By Mai-Lan Ha, Research Associate

August 21, 2013 

Available, Affordable, Accessible, Acceptable, and Safe – the cornerstones of the human right to water and sanitation were codified in California in 2012 with the adoption of Assembly Bill 685. California’s adoption of the right heralded another step in the progressive realization of the right to water and sanitation globally. It followed the UN General Assembly’s adoption in 2010 of a binding resolution acknowledging the right to safe drinking water and sanitation and national-level recognition of the right by countries such as South Africa, Kenya, and Belgium.

The human right to water has been a longstanding area of work for the Pacific Institute, starting with two papers on basic human needs and water and the Human Right to Water in 1996 and 1999, respectively. Since then, the Institute has continued to explore the issue, looking at it from multiple facets including nation-state adoption and implementation of the right and local community impacts, to business sector respect for the right. Currently, the Pacific Institute, in its capacity as Co-Secretariat for the UN Global Compact’s CEO Water Mandate, has been working to better define, on a practical level, what respect for the human right to water and sanitation entails for large water-using companies.

Photo: Eyal Ofer

Over the past decade, there has been increasing recognition that businesses have a responsibility to respect internationally recognized human rights. However, how to do so effectively and practically on a day-to-day basis has been less clear. With the unanimous adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (“the Guiding Principles”) by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, there is now an authoritative reference point for business. These two developments, the adoption of the UN General Assembly of the human right to water and sanitation in 2010 and the adoption of the Guiding Principles in 2011, created an opportunity for the CEO Water Mandate to further explore and provide much needed guidance for businesses.

Early on, the Mandate adopted a workstream focused explicitly on business, water, and human rights. This was based on the recognition that the human right to water and sanitation has fundamental implications for key elements of corporate water management from direct operations to supply chain engagement to local watershed management. However, these early conversations within the initiative also revealed there was much uncertainty among companies about what they could do on a practical level to respect and in some cases even promote realization of the right. Practical, actionable guidance was much needed.

Since 2010 the Mandate has taken on the task of developing such guidance.  As the project has progressed, what has become clear is that many companies, through their existing corporate water stewardship practices, may already be taking measures that are aligned with respecting the human right to water and sanitation. Actions to understand impacts are fundamental to respecting the human right; processes to limit water use may be a step toward mitigating impacts; community engagement processes, communications, and disclosure are all core to key aspects of respect under the UN Guiding Principles.

In August 2012, the Mandate released a paper entitled Bringing a Human Rights Lens to Corporate Water Stewardship. Besides laying out the international and national context around the human right to water and sanitation, challenges companies face, and perspectives of potentially affected communities, the paper lays out key areas of alignment between the elements of the UN Guiding Principles and corporate water stewardship. An initial analysis of the two frameworks reveals that there are areas of clear convergence. For example, both corporate water stewardship and the Guiding Principles stress the importance of effective consultation with stakeholders, particularly potentially affected communities to understand a company’s impacts. It should be noted, however, that the Guiding Principles have a focus on understanding and preserving the rights of potentially affected stakeholders, while many corporate water stewardship risks assessments focus on understanding risks to the business. However there is increasing awareness that risks to human rights and water may lead to risks to businesses.

The project, now in its second phase, is focused on an in-depth exploration of these areas of convergence and divergence.  More importantly, we are in the process of understanding how to bring about greater alignment between two worlds: one focusing on business and human rights and the other on corporate water stewardship. The ambition is to develop guidance for creating integrated processes and effective corporate management systems that enable companies to “know and show” that they are indeed respecting the human right to water and sanitation.

If successful, the Guide will be a key resource that will help the private sector effectively do its part to contribute to the overall realization of the right and ensure that water as a fundamental resource is available and accessible to all who need it.

Pacific Institute Insights is the staff blog of the Pacific Institute, one of the world’s leading nonprofit research groups on sustainable and equitable management of natural resources. For more about what we do, click here. The views and opinions expressed in these blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect an official policy or position of the Pacific Institute.

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