Respecting the Human Right to Water

More than a Resource: Water, Business, and Human Rights, a recent report by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (“IHRB”) calls on companies to take action to respect the human right to water.

The report references the emerging consensus among international institutions that businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights, and highlights the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, drafted by the former U.N. Special Representative on Business and Human Rights, John Ruggie, as providing the most authoritative guidance on how to implement this responsibility. The Guiding Principles specifically state that companies should conduct human rights due diligence in order to assess and respond to the actual and potential human rights impacts of their operations.

As previously discussed, in July 2010, the U.N. General Assembly declared access to safe water to be a human right.  Soon thereafter, in September 2010, the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a resolution recognizing access to clean water and sanitation as a fundamental human right, “equal to all other human rights” (emphasis added) and capable of legal enforcement.  These developments came at the same time as increasing water scarcity is impacting communities, and companies, around the world.

The new report by IHRB suggests that

[i]n view of the fact that the right to drinking water and sanitation was formally recognized in 2010, all businesses should take account of this right when they implement human rights due diligence procedures and develop a human rights policy statement

as called for in the Guiding Principles.  In our previous analysis of the human right to water, we noted that companies will likely find that stakeholders increasingly expect due diligence efforts, especially with regard to human rights impacts, to include assessments of corporate impacts on community water resources.

Notably, the IHRB report also predicts that “governments and intergovernmental organizations will increasingly call on businesses to be transparent and accountable for their impacts in relations to water, in human rights terms.” That said, as the report observes, “most businesses do not yet consider water to be a social issue, and the great majority do not explicitly address the human rights impacts of their policies and operations in this area.”  This is an emerging challenge that many companies, especially those with water-intensive operations, will need to address in order to manage their operations and stakeholder relationships effectively.

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