Business can help define water policy

In a country where for decades the majority was marginalised and denied access to adequate water supplies,recent political and economic advancements have brought the need for transparency and equitable water allocation to the fore.

Yet South Africa’s water supply infrastructure is too ill-equipped and poorly maintained to meet growing demand,leading to a massive shortfall in service delivery. Climate change in a country that has the 30th lowest water availability per person is only exacerbating the crisis. As a result,water insecurity poses a major risk to businesses,communities and the environment. Due to the increased competition for water in many sectors,environmental needs are often given the lowest priority.

But there are opportunities to fix these problems through effective private-public or private-civil society partnerships and some businesses have responded in an attempt to address their risks.

For example,in May the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce established a water commission specifically to work with the government to address water infrastructure challenges. Companies such as Sanlam,SAB and De Beers have sought the World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF’s) technical expertise and partnership to help them understand and manage their water-related risks.

In an article in this column on October 5,the point was made that businesses needed to look beyond their own operations and supply chains to manage water risk.

This means engaging the wider society – a broad spectrum of stakeholders,communities and local authorities.

But how can businesses influence public water policy in a responsible way? At what scale should businesses engage in public water policy? What are the key principles that should define this engagement?

These and other questions are addressed in the Guide to Responsible Business Engagement with Water Policy,launched at the meeting of the UN’s CEO Water Mandate in Cape Town this week.

This guide – among the first to provide counsel on business engagement in water policy – examines public water policy in a broader context,going beyond the traditional view of water policy as a legal structure. It incorporates issues of planning,water allocation and management practices to define public water policy.

The guide outlines five principles for responsible business involvement in water policy. The first speaks to intent:responsible engagement should be driven by a genuine interest in efficient,equitable and ecologically sustainable water management.

Second,there should be a clear division of public and private sector roles,with businesses supporting the government’s mandate. Third,responsible engagement promotes inclusiveness and meaningful partnership. Fourth,businesses should recognise the connections between water and other policy arenas and be mindful of the environmental,social,cultural and political context.

Finally,companies engaged in water policy must be transparent and accountable for their actions.

What does this mean for South African businesses? Over the next six months,WWF South Africa and its partners will be exploring opportunities for business engagement with public water policy.

This will be achieved through a series of private-public dialogues both at the national level and for specific catchments. The WWF’s goal is to create a space where the private and public sectors can meaningfully collaborate,where trust and a shared drive to address South Africa’s water challenges take precedence.

Where to from here? The WWF fully supports the six pillars of the UN CEO Water Mandate,which focus on a firm’s water resource management in its direct operations;supply chain and watershed management;collective action;public policy;community action;and transparency.

Worryingly,fewer than five major companies in South Africa have endorsed the mandate,a sign that the private sector has yet to fully grasp the enormity of the water challenges this country faces. We therefore call on all major companies to endorse the mandate,which is part of the UN Global Compact,as a demonstration of their commitment to the sustainable management of our scarce water resources.

Mao Amis is the manager of WWF South Africa’s integrated catchment management programme.

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