On Wednesday, the UN General Assembly declared that access to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right. While not directly legally binding, this step will end the longstanding debate about the status of water as a human right. With almost 900 million people worldwide without access to clean water this long-overdue declaration reflects the importance of water as a sustainability challenge. It is also good news for business.
All companies have significant water impacts, whether as users, service providers, or innovators of technology that enables access to clean water. For these companies, the UN’s declaration provides more clarity on their responsibilities and represents an opportunity for innovation and leadership.
There is a growing global consensus around corporate responsibility for human rights, which is based on the framework introduced by UN Special Representative John Ruggie. While it is the state’s duty to protect human rights, companies have a responsibility to respect all human rights, including the right to water. Respect is defined as “non-infringement,” ensured by proactive due diligence measures such as policies, impact assessments, management systems, and reporting.
Widely supported and endorsed by governments, businesses, and civil society groups around the world, this framework is something companies can and should use to help understand their water impacts and to manage those impacts effectively. Ruggie’s baseline standard provides a clear, globally applicable framework for corporate responsibility in this area.
Opportunities to Innovate
The growing challenge of water scarcity is also an opportunity for business. It is an opportunity to create new ways of providing value using less or eventually no water. It’s also an opportunity to develop new technology and more efficient production processes to help minimize water use and pollution. There are many good case studies of companies leading the way. Unilever, for example, has developed laundry detergents that require less water when used by the consumer, helping the company win new customers and preserving water in developing countries that are suffering from water scarcity.
Business Can Lead
Leading companies like Unilever have seized the opportunity for innovation. Others, like Pepsi or Suez, the French water-services company, publicly recognized water as a human right long before this week’s UN declaration. While much work remains to be done, they serve as good reminders that business can play a leading role in the effort to help the world’s poor gain access to clean water and sanitation.
I am sure those involved in crafting this declaration will disagree, but this was the easy part. The hard part is still ahead: We need more leadership, more ideas, and more action from business, governments, and civil society to realize this right for all human beings. If we don’t do anything, the declaration will have been meaningless.