Do Firms Have a Role in Protecting Water as a Basic Human Right?
Before you answer, consider this: No water, no life. And certainly no business.
With the exception of air to breathe, no other thing, which if deprived, can cause human death as quickly as water. Some experts suggest that you can perish in anywhere from two to 10 days without water; by contrast people can go weeks or even months without food. Poor water quality also has a devastating effect on the health of people across the world. One of the more heart-wrenching and often-quoted statistics is that of a child under five dying every 15 seconds from a water-related illness.
The global population is growing, existing populations are migrating, and the water resources available to the areas where they are expected to be needed most are dwindling—both in terms of quantity and quality. Currently, over 1.2 billion people worldwide lack access to safe water. Drought exacerbates the chronic hunger facing more than 1 billion worldwide, and the safety of water supplies is seriously threatened by the lack of adequate sanitation across the world. Indeed, 2.6 billion people lack access to sanitation.
Water also sits at the nexus of water security, food security, climate change, and education. Agriculture comprises 70 percent of global water use, and as much as 90 percent-plus in developing geographies. If agricultural water efficiency can be improved, more water could be available for drinking and hygiene.
Our oceans are carbon sinks, our glaciers and ice sheets are reflectors of the sun’s radiant energy, and our ground and surface water supplies are conduits for heat. As the planet’s climate changes, so does its major water flows, and no one can adequately predict the material impact these changes will have on populations across the globe.
If you don’t have safe water to drink, your first priority becomes getting it. Unfortunately, the casualty of this need is often education. Families living in poverty often dispatch the girls in the household on a six-to-eight hour journey to fetch water each and every day. As a result, these girls end up not attending school.
Consumer products companies are users of water, and we have an obligation to the consumers we serve and to the communities in which we operate to recognize the human right to water and do our part to make that right a reality. Earlier this year, PepsiCo formalized our recognition of water as a human right, in conjunction with our partner, NorthStar Asset Management, who brought the topic to our attention. The basic elements (based on those developed by the World Health Organization and UN) of protecting the right to water are:
- Safety: Ensure that operations preserve the quality of the water resources in the communities in which you do business;
- Sufficiency: Ensure that use of water will not diminish the availability of community water resources to the individuals or the communities in the areas in which you operate;
- Acceptability: Involve communities in plans to develop water resources, and assure transparency of any risks or challenges to the local governments and community members in an on-going manner;
- Physical Accessibility: Ensure operations will not adversely impact physical accessibility of community members to community water resources and will address community concerns in a cooperative manner;
- Affordability: Appropriately advocate to applicable government bodies that safe water supplies should be available in a fair and equitable manner to members of the community. Such water should be safe and of consistent and adequate supply and affordable within local practices.
Recognition and commitment are merely the start of the journey … and we believe it will be a long one. We have embraced the spirit of these elements for years; the challenge now is formalizing them and further embedding them within business processes across the world. The prospect is daunting, and collaboration is key.
The enormity of the myriad water crises is such that no single entity can solve them alone. Everyone— governments, NGOs, academia, individuals, and yes, industry — must collaborate on the solutions. Collaboration allows you to “divide and conquer.” Not every company needs to address every element mentioned above (though this is ideal)…but every company should address some element.
So, do companies have a role in protecting water as a basic human right? Not just a role, but an absolute obligation.
Dan Bena is Director of Sustainability, Health, Safety and Environment at PepsiCo International. He will be sharing his insights on water at the upcoming World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Water Core Working Group.
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