The Business of Water


Sea Change Host Francesca Rheannon brings us the Sea Change News Analysis examining the sustainability of water as a business proposition.  The News Analysis draws on content from the News Alert by Sea Change Host Bill Baue.  For information not included in this version, check out the post on

Water sustains life, but too much can flood us, and too little can strangle us with thirst. As climate change threatens to swamp us with higher sea levels and dry out farmlands around the world through drought, we have to be more mindful in our relationship with water.

The UN estimates that a billion people in the developing world lack access to water. That’s billion with a “b”. And that figure is projected to grow to two out of three people in the near future. It’s a matter of life, death, and justice.

United Nations World Water Day was Sunday, March 22. A proliferation of events, forums, and reports marked the event. At the 5th World Water Forum in Instanbul, a gathering of business leaders pledged themselves to the so-called CEO Water Mandate. A private-public initiative of the UN Global Compact, the mandate is billed as a socially responsible guide for corporations in dealing with global water issues. It aims to promote partnerships between businesses, NGOs and governments. And it claims to promotes transparency in corporate activity and stakeholder involvement.

But water justice activists meeting at the Alternative Water Forum elsewhere in Instanbul called the Forum’s corporate-driven agenda hypocritical. They claim that the transnational corporations and financial institutions taking the CEO Water Mandate pledge are more focused on maximizing profits than solving the water access crisis. In fact, they say, the two goals are in conflict with each other–and charge that the record of signatories to the mandate show that. Coca-Cola has drained critical water supplies from Indian farm to supply its plants. Suez is one of the world’s largest privatizers of water services. Nestle, Pepsico and Groupe Danone are among the world’s biggest producers of bottled water, which not only appropriates large quantities of water for private use, but also had been credited with creating a major pollution problem–plastic bottles.

The main problem, the protestors say, it that the Mandate has no way for ordinary people to hold the corporations accountable. Since it’s voluntary, transparency and stakeholder involvement is also voluntary. And the activists question whether anything short of mandatory accountability can bridge the gap between the drive for profits and the goal of better corporate social responsibility.

Water justice advocates Corporate Accountability International and the Polaris Institute are calling on UN leaders to withdraw from the program.

Firms that make water their business say that in a time of declining government revenues, privatizing water brings in investment for infrastructure. Others counter that the remedy lies not in privatization, but in shifting tax revenues toward water.

Is it possible to develop a business model that is both profitable AND supports equitable access to water? That’s a question the Sustainable Water Alliance has been pondering. And they’ll be posing it at the Blue, Green, and Gold Conference on the Future of Water, Finance, and the Environment in Zurich this April. The Alliance is neutral on the issue of water privatization — they say what matters more is “that there is money to invest in water, and the service is delivered at the lowest possible cost.”

Disclosure: Sea Change Radio partners on ViewPoint commentaries with the Business Ethics Network, a project of Corporate Accountability International.

About Bill Baue

Bill Baue is Co-Director of Sea Change Media, a non-profit that makes connections in the shift to social, environmental, and economic sustainability. He co-hosts/produces Sea Change Radio, a nationally syndicated show that podcasts globally.