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Corporate Water Stewardship And Corporate Engagement In Water Management, Politics And Governance: A Legitimacy Framework For Analysis

Congress: 2015
Author(s): Suvi Sojamo, Nick Hepworth, Jeroen Warner
Aalto University 1, Water Witness International 2, Wageningen University 3

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 7: Global challenges for water governance,

This paper introduces a legitimacy framework for analysing the growing water using corporate engagement in water management, politics and governance under the emerging paradigm of "corporate water stewardship" (6) and presents first findings based on extensive case-study research. We understand legitimacy as a justification of an agent's authority in a given issue (4), here testing justification of water using corporations' engagement on water. Applying the framework to the cases in focus, we reflect on practical actions required to unlock legitimate -- if any -- corporate contributions to water management, politics and governance, and to mitigate against blue wash, diverting or nefarious corporate efforts.

Distinct to the public-private debate on water utilities, there is currently a lack of academic scrutiny on water using corporate actors and their activities on water (6). However, the sheer amount of water used by the private sector and the power of transnational corporations, an increasing number of them engaging in water politics and governance, bears a potential for advancing certain perspectives within water management and debates (5,6,10). Problematically, corporate engagement on water, e.g. policy engagement, investments in water infrastructure and initiating catchment governance interactions to manage their operational, reputational and regulatory water risks, is growing especially in water insecure and unjust instances where governments or communities as custodians of water resources are struggling to fulfil their roles (6). In these instances, strong corporate agency --agency here understood as authority, position and capacity to change course of events or outcome of processes (3)-- may further undermine public sector and civil society agency and risk institutional and resource capture. Though not necessarily originally intended so, this renders even the good-willing corporate engagement illegitimate from the perspective of the universal norms of the common and public good nature of water resources and in the worst case prioritises private and foreign economic gains over local human rights to water and livelihoods and ecosystem health.

Applying the legitimacy framework constructed, we revisit the corporate water engagement concepts and claims such as "corporate water stewardship", "shared water risk" or "shared value" and suggest roles water using corporations may, should and should not play in water resources management, politics and governance at different levels of interaction.


We applied an adaptive theory approach, i.e. combined testing of existing theory and developing new based on the collected data (8). The data gathering methods included extensive participating observation and observing participation in and comparative case studies of corporate water engagement initiatives and projects internationally, key-informant interviews, and literature review of CSR, organisational studies, and corporate agency and its legitimacy in other fields of environmental management, politics and governance. The analysis focused on content, proceeding from identifying the key concepts and the logic linking them, to further developing and testing the framework and recommendations presented via pattern matching, explanation building and cross-case synthesis (11).

Results and Discussion

First, the key concepts central to the forms of corporate engagement on water in focus, such as "corporate water stewardship", "shared water risk", "shared value" and are briefly introduced. Second, the underlying drivers of corporate engagement will be further explored and the global institutional and organisational landscape mapped. Third, the current typologies of corporate activities are presented.

Then, the framework for analysing legitimacy of corporate engagement on water with considerations of power, equity and justice and effectiveness is constructed, which is applicable to corporate water engagement policies, initiatives and projects (Figure 1.).Our understanding of legitimacy is of it being socially constructed, a result of interplay between prevailing norms and social perceptions. Furthermore, considerations and constituents of it are as context specific as are those of water management and governance. Therefore, the questions under the source-, process- and results-based legitimacy and their relative weight may also differ on a case-by-case basis (e.g. outcome-based legitimacy may override process-based due to representation reasons), but we believe the three perspectives still to be universally valid and the question of legitimacy to be relevant. As said, even though the framework is first and foremost analytical, deriving from the existing literature (1,2,7,9) and the field work findings, we also present a set of normative and functional principles for testing why, when and how, if at all, corporations can contribute towards just and effective water politics, management and governance for all.

Based on the framework and the case-study findings, the key corporate water engagement concepts and the engagement typology are revisited and the roles corporations can, should and should not play at different water politics, management and governance levels are discussed. For example, the concepts of "shared risk" and "shared value" are deemed useful in facilitating corporate engagement in collective action, but easily fade away questions about the broader context, securitisation of water issues by the powerful stakeholders and historical and current injustices. "Corporate water stewardship" approach to catchment level interaction bears a promise of a fairer future, but equally needs further consideration on issues of procedural and distributional equity and justice. It is emphasised that local level initiative and ownership and equal multi-stakeholder engagement and fit with the prevailing institutional priorities, principles and societal discourses are central starting points for any corporate engagement activity, though still often found lacking in practice. This has been a result of stewardship largely being a foreign agenda and poor problem and stakeholder analyses. Corporate activities should first and foremost support the mandated organisations such as governments or communities in improving water security for all to avoid institutional and resource capture instead of corporate initiatives introducing new institutional mechanisms. Finally, it is suggested the research community should play a stronger role in scrutinising, and if deemed legitimate, facilitating the multi-stakeholder water engagement processes with corporate participation.


We present a legitimacy framework that is both theoretically and practically applicable for analysing legitimacy of water using corporate engagement in water politics, management and governance, and key principles and practices for a fairer water future for all. 1. Beisheim, M. and Campe, S. (2012) Transnational public–private partnerships’ performance in water governance: institutional design matters. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 30:627 – 642.
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2011 IWRA - International Water Resources Association - - Admin