More than a Resource - Water, Business and Human Rights

15 August 2011

This report clarifies the relationships between business, human rights and water and answers some of the key questions that arise when they are considered together. It makes the case for integrating human rights considerations, including those relating to water, into the policies and practices of business. Given the international political consensus that has developed, more generally about the responsibility of companies to respect human rights, and specifically about water as a human right, the report anticipates that governments and intergovernmental organisations will increasingly call on businesses to be transparent and accountable for their impacts in relation to water, in human rights terms.

Most businesses do not yet consider water to be a social issue, and the great majority do not explicitly assess the human rights impacts of their policies and operations in this area. Current policy approaches have tended to distinguish the responsibilities of corporate water users (i.e. all businesses) from those of private water service providers (utilities that directly manage water services). This distinction is evidently relevant, but it has meant companies have tended to overlook the complexity of the policy challenges that arise in a range of sectors – from mining, oil and gas, via water technologies, to manufacturing processes - where water provision is crucial, though not the primary focus of the enterprise. Partly as a result, some businesses recognise the right to water while others take a broader rights-based approach. The report highlights differences between the two approaches, making clear that each has relevance to all businesses, regardless of their function or geographic location.

That the private sector has a role to play in water policy is evident, given its influence and the scale of its water consumption, and also because some businesses provide or process water for public use. The report presumes that the obligations and expectations placed on business should not be framed ideologically (either from a free market perspective or in anti-business terms, for example) but should examine the positive and negative impact that private investments will have on human rights, and in particular on the rights of those who are most marginalized and vulnerable. From this perspective, businesses have much to offer as partners of governments and civil society, particularly in regions where water is scarce and poverty widespread. This should be the foundation of publicprivate partnerships in this area, and also dialogue about the role of business at the 2012 United Nations (UN) Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil, and efforts to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals by 2015. There is a business opportunity for responsible companies on issues relating to water and sustainable development. But companies also need to be more accountable and transparent about the impact of their activities, and to provide adequate remedies for victims of abuse.

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