At this year’s Corporate Water FootPrinting Conference, held in San Francisco December 2-3, the ongoing conversation about the human right to water received front and center billing. This spotlight was in stark contrast to last year’s event, where the subject was largely absent from the agenda and discussion. At that conference, the “water as a public right” NGO community was not on the guest list or in attendance. They were outraged by the notion and appearance that corporations were meeting privately behind closed doors, devising strategies for divvying up the world’s water resources.
In response, the NGO’s organized teach-ins, street protests and leveraged media coverage, the results of which cast a less than positive light on last year’s conference with respect to inclusiveness and transparency. This year, the conference organizers and sponsors, all the wiser from last year’s lack of stakeholder engagement faux pas, invited two H2O NGO’s, represented by Food and Water Watch and the As You Sow Foundation, to the proverbial watering hole.
The conference discussion on “The Human Right to Water and the Corporate Community” was lively and heartfelt. The panel included Mark Schlosberg, the Western regional director of Food & Water Watch, Conrad MacKerron, the director of the corporate social responsibility program at the As You Sow Foundation, Harry Ott, senior fellow at The Future 500 and Dan Bena, the director of sustainable development, occupational health and safety, environmental, for PepsiCo International.
Bena discussed PepsiCo’s commitment to the UN’s notion of the human right to water, which fully commits the company to respecting the right to sufficient clean water, as well as individuals’ rights to be involved in the development of processes that extract water from their communities. MacKerron pointed out that the origin and catalyst for PepsiCo’s commitment was not its internal ethical compass but rather a UUSC–NorthStar “Human Right to Water” shareholder resolution led by NorthStar Asset Management. Schlosberg addressed the issue of governments’ responsibility to uphold and enforce rights and laws that protect the health and welfare of its their citizenry. He challenged the companies in attendance and their trade groups to walk their talk and lobby for strong consumer protection legislation in regard to water.
In the end, as is often be the case, the devil is in the details. Though both the panelists and the conference participants were aligned as to the need for universal access to clean and safe drinking water, there was no clear consensus as to a human right to water, or if water is a public or private asset.
After attending both the first and second Corporate Water Footprinting conferences in my hometown of San Francisco, I’m happy to report that inspired citizen/consumer actions are being heard loud and clear in corporate boardrooms. Big brands like PepsiCo, Nestle, and Coke represent just a few of the many corporations heeding the clarion call of resource stewardship as they are pushed and pulled to change the way they do business.
We are changing the world!