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Open for business or opening Pandora’s box? A constructive critique of corporate engagement in water policy: An introduction

Nick Hepworth
Water Witness International and University of East Anglia, UK; nickhepworth@waterwitness.org

ABSTRACT: The corporate world is waking to the realisation that improved water management is fundamental for future prosperity and human well-being. This special issue explores aspects of its response: from the application of an array of analytical tools such as water footprint accounting, risk filters and standards; water use efficiencies; derivatives and insurance mechanisms; to collaborative infrastructure and watershed projects; stakeholder engagement and attempts to influence water governance at all scales. Drawing on the papers in this issue the motivations for this new agenda are traced and its potential in helping to unlock some of our most intractable water challenges, or to open a Pandora’s box of controversies are considered. Key concerns include the potential for diverging corporate and public interests; policy and regulatory capture; privileging of economic over social perspectives; process inequities; displacement of existing water management priorities, and the risks of misguided interventions which undermine institutional and hydrological sustainability. Reflecting on these and the state of research on the topic eight priorities for a constructive response are discussed: closing the legitimacy gap; evaluating outcomes; reviewing evaluative tools; representation and inclusiveness; conceptual and methodological groundwork; outreach; and involvement and mobilisation. In conclusion, corporate engagement on water has great potential as both a progressive or reactionary force. Debate, research, scrutiny and action are urged to differentiate the 'good', the 'bad' and the 'ugly' and to pose fundamental questions about sustainability and equity.

KEYWORDS: Corporate water engagement, water stewardship, water risk, legitimacy