Water and Human Rights, Unlocked: A Guide for Water-Intensive Industries

Authors: Marc F. Muller, Diane Desierto, Ellis Adams, Georges Enderle, Elizabeth Dolan, Ray Offenheiser, Leonardo Bertassello, Nathaniel Hanna, Shambhavi Shekokar, Sean O'Neill, Tom Purekal

Publication info: Pulte Institute for Global Development, November 2022

Full text: Read this paper at curate.nd.edu


Worsening global water insecurity drastically impairs the health and livelihoods of communities throughout the world, while further endangering interlinked ecosystems in our planet. This is especially true in areas impacted by water-intensive, yet critically needed, industries like the mining, beverage, garment, and agriculture sectors. Within these industrial spaces, any effective water stewardship strategy or allocation plan must consider the human right to water. This paper introduces the Realizing Rights for Water (RRW) Framework, a human rights-based approach to water management that empowers actors in water-intensive industries to fulfill the human right to water and all interrelated human rights. Though extremely comprehensive in nature, the RRW Framework attempts to do something quite simple: empower industry actors, prior to implementation, to ask the right questions about how their proposed operations could impact human rights in their areas of operation. Answering these questions in advance will enable proactive building of a more contextualized schematic for mitigating human rights risks, directly embedding this schematic onto operational processes and activities. The Framework consists of three parts. First, it assesses the impacts of the considered industrial operation(s) on the water security of affected communities. In doing so, it embraces the multi-dimensional nature of water as necessary for health, livelihood, food security and cultural and spiritual fulfillment. Next, it evaluates water-related governance concerns by including factors such as institutions, norms, and historical grievances. Finally, it maps findings from these two assessments onto a legal framework that helps actors identify potential threats to the fulfillment of both the human right to water and of the other human rights that depend on water.

We created the RRW Framework in response to a critical gap in both the scholarly literature and existing water management best practices. Our approach is based on the recognition that existing indicator-based assessments are insufficient to generate a nuanced understanding of how the human right to water and interrelated rights manifest in operational contexts. Current assessments also generally do not empower companies to act proactively to prevent, rather than just focus on remediating, outcomes ensuing from adverse human rights situations. A practical and substantive implementation-focused approach to the human right to water and its relationship to water-intensive industrial processes was needed, if not demanded, by industry-related actors. This is even more urgent in the face of the widening global movements towards ensuring the duty of business to respect human rights under Pillar II of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Our proposed framework is a modest step in the long journey towards fair, ethical, sustainable and equitable water stewardship practices in water-intensive industries. We hope that this report generates further discussion, reflection, and activism among our intended audience, which includes (but is not limited to) academic researchers, project managers and engineers making operational decisions in water-intensive industries, government officials drafting water policy and regulation, and civil society organizations or community leaders. We trust that the RRW Framework widens and enriches the ongoing dialogue between many constituencies seeking to help realize and implement the human right to water for all.

Recommended citation

Muller, Marc et al. Water and Human Rights, Unlocked: A Guide for Water-Intensive Industries. Notre Dame, IN: Pulte Institute for Global Development/Keough School of Global Affairs, 2022. https://doi.org/10.7274/5t34sj16d0k.