Later today WSUP and Business Fights Poverty are co-hosting an online discussion on the vital role that business has to play in increasing access to safe and clean water. The discussion will look specifically at the theme of multi-stakeholder ‘partnerships’ – what are the most promising partnership models designed to tackle shared water risks? What role does government have to play? What are the barriers to progress, replication and scale-up?

WSUP was set up in 2006 as a tri-sector partnership between the private sector, civil society and academia, and the concept of partnership remains absolutely core to our work: our presence in any city is premised on our close working relationship with the local water utility, which is often supplemented by support to small-scale, private sector water providers, contracted to serve areas of the city under delegated management arrangements. In our experience this type of partnership – between a city or national utility and small-scale private operators – offers the kind of flexibility needed to extend services and respond effectively to the needs of low-income consumers, as currently being demonstrated in Maputo, Lusaka and other WSUP locations. And any debate about water services should begin from the perspective of the consumer: most don’t care if the water they receive is publically or privately provided, they care that the water is safe and affordable. The end goal is to provide a safe and reliable water supply at the lowest possible price.

So small business can contribute directly to increased access – but what about the big, multinational companies? Here the emphasis generally shifts from service provision to tackling water risks: as detailed in our recent Discussion Paper, water issues affect virtually all companies through channels including the marketplace, the workforce, manufacturing operations, supply chains, and the broader enabling environment in which they work. For companies like Coca-Cola, managing water supplies and stress is a vital commercial consideration, a hugely complex task that demands collaboration with other actors: as Greg Koch noted in his recent blog, “we want and need to partner”.

The Latin American Water Funds Partnership reflects this philosophy, and offers a strong example of a multi-stakeholder initiative aimed at water resource management and ecosystem conservation. The Coca-Cola Company Latin Center and its local bottling partners have invested $7.4 million to replenish 6.9 million cubic metres of water in seven Latin American countries through the funds, which are managed through a partnership between The Nature Conservancy, Fundación FEMSA, the Inter-American Development Bank and FMAM, and back a range of conservation projects, from reforestation through to community and farmer education initiatives. Another strong example is SABMiller’s groundwater management initiative in Neemrana, India, involving the state Central Ground Water Board, the Confederation of Indian Industry, Humana (an NGO) and local farmers.

In establishing and scaling-up these partnerships it is vital to reflect on the role of government.  Greg Koch argues that water is an essential commodity, and something that governments ultimately have to control: the water funds and similar projects are therefore targeted at policy change, and aim to “demonstrate success, so that governments codify, protect and amplify water conservation initiatives”. In the area of water services provision too, government is responsible for ensuring the quality of the regulatory and broader enabling environment required for partnerships to flourish.

To wrap-up, a key aim of today’s discussion is to identify barriers to creating water partnerships, and to exchange views on how such partnerships can be strengthened. Here are some starting thoughts based on WSUP’s experience: 1) identify and articulate metrics that can more effectively demonstrate the impacts of these partnerships; 2) promote internal systems that allow for and encourage the concept of partnership (for example, the administrative procedures of some companies insist on naming a prime or secondary partner, negating the possibility of a contract between two equal partners…); 3) promote cost-sharing models that are appropriate to the financial resources and unique capabilities of the partners involved, and 4) encourage the development of internal champions to support specific partnerships and help them grow. Of course this is far from straightforward and you might disagree. Either way, we would love to hear your views – come and join in the discussion!