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Published: 12.18.2013

The Guardian: The murky pool of big business, water and policy capture

News Source: The Guardian

By Oliver Balch

In early 2000, a string of riots and protests broke out in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba. The “water wars” were sparked by a government decision to hand over control of water supply to a foreign-owned, private consortium. The bid process was uncontested and the revenues guaranteed for 40 years. Residents had every right to be aggrieved. Their bills jumped by 35% overnight and small farmers faced the loss of traditional irrigation rights.

The episode represents a classic case of “policy capture”. More than a decade on and the perception that big business is muscling in on water policy remains widespread. And it’s not just in far-flung corners of the developing world. This week, policymakers are discussing “sweeping new EU-US trade negotiations” that could see greater corporate control over key European water markets, according to a report by Corporate Observatory Europe (CEO), a Brussels-based pressure group. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership could lead to reduction in environmental and water quality standards too, water campaigners fear.

“The private water industry is investing heavily in lobbying to shape EU water policies,” argues Olivier Hoedeman, CEO’s research co-ordinator. “The most extreme example of this corporate bias is … where the European Commission uses its negotiating power to pressure other countries to open their markets to EU-based water multinationals.”

But the issue isn’t just limited to companies involved in commercial water services. Far from it. Most water-related conflicts around the world actually arise at the consumption phase. David Hall, a water policy expert at the University of Greenwich and co-author of a paper on corporate water practices and human rights, points the finger to heavy water users in the agribusiness, food and beverage, and mining sectors in particular.

“At a global level, the same companies that are major consumers of water promote a number of initiatives to try and advance ideas which favour their interests in these conflicts with other users,” Hall argues.

Take water efficiency. It’s difficult to argue with the idea of saving water, you’d think. And you’d be right. But what if agribusinesses use efficiency arguments as a pretext for pushing forward high-tech farming solutions, asks Hall, who claims something similar is unfolding in India’s Maharashtra state at present.

Pushing for clarity over water rights is another concept advocated by companies. Again, the idea seems reasonable, especially given the informal nature of such rights in much of the world. However, such a move easily opens the door to a “regime of structured contractual rights”, whereby water is portioned off to the highest bidder, says Hall.

Water is an undeniably emotive topic, and citizen groups have every reason to remain vigil. But big business has a legitimate interest in seeing that water is well-stewarded too. Precisely because of their high levels of water consumption, water stress represents a large and growing risk. A new country ranking by the World Resources Institute (WRI), for example, finds that water-related problems threaten more than half (56%) the world’s irrigated agricultural land.

So companies have to act. The question is how to do so in way that is perceived as fair. The CEO Water Mandate, a company-backed initiative, produced guidelines back in 2010 to address exactly this challenge. The Guide to Responsible Business Engagement with Water Policy identifies five core principles for business to follow: (i) advance sustainable water management; (ii) respect public and private roles; (iii) strive for inclusiveness and partnerships; (iv) be pragmatic and consider integrated engagement; (v) be accountable and transparent.

Jason Morrison, technical director at the CEO Water Mandate, puts special emphasis on two of these principles: transparency and inclusiveness. Both are “daunting” concepts for most companies, which are used to “discretely and quietly” strike bilateral deals with water ministries, he admits.

“[Companies] have to be very clear about what they’re doing, with whom and why. The degree to which you’re transparent about that, it really does insulate you from the accusation of policy capture,” he argues.

Jesse Worker, associate for the Access Initiative at WRI, agrees. Only full, meaningful and ongoing disclosure will persuade the public that business “has a legitimate role to play” in water policy, he says. In addition to publishing information on the policy-making process, responsible companies should be providing data on their water use, discharge rates and other impacts as well.

As for inclusivity, inviting other interest groups to join in the policy-making process helps pre-empt those same groups accusing a company of policy capture “further down the road”, says Morrison. Collaboration isn’t easy, however. For one, it takes time. Multi-stakeholders processes can “easily take several years” to achieve an outcome, says Greg Koch, director of global water stewardship at drinks brand Coca Cola. Working within the constraints of a government’s bureaucratic decision-making process requires further time and patience, he notes.

Yet an open, participative approach to policy engagement is possible, Koch states. He points to the work of the multi-stakeholder 2030 Water Resources Group (WRG). Launched in 2008, the initiative advocates a three-stage approach in the six countries where it operates – a list that includes India, where Coca Cola has been embroiled in a conflict over water use in the past. The first two stages comprise analysing current and future areas of water stress, and then designing pilot solutions that have the potential to be scaled if successful. Both stages include widespread external consultation.

Stage three is decision time. It’s the “domain of government” to decide what interventions or policy reforms are most appropriate, and how these will be financed and administered, Koch insists. “That’s the point when we and everyone step out.”