Last year I was asked to be involved in a joint publication from the International Council for Mining & Metals (ICMM) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) which explored the issue of collective action on water resources in the mining sector, with a strong focus on Mongolia. While WWF did not end up authoring the publication, we did offer inputs. So when we were offered the opportunity to write a blog on the report, we thought it would be helpful to provide some insights on what we saw as key takeaways and areas in need of further exploration in the collective action space.
Now full disclosure: I’m a pretty big fan of ICMM and IFC. I think they have both been progressive when it comes to water issues and supporting water stewardship. Indeed, we recently helped ICMM to shape its solid new commitments on water stewardship, which are binding on the Council’s members – 23 of the world’s largest mining companies. Furthermore, we know mining companies are concerned about their water risk exposure, as many have used WWF’s Water Risk Filter to assess their water risk.
It’s great to see financial institutions, companies and their industry associations not just talking water, but tackling the tough stuff head on.
WWF has spent the past decade helping to raise awareness on Water Stewardship. It’s not always easy to share the lessons of what worked (and moreover, what didn’t work quite as well). That takes guts, but is also essential in establishing trust – which is one of the critical ingredients in building collective action.
IFC and ICMM have unearthed some collective action case study gems.
Too often we talk in generalities when it comes to working together. This report bucks that trend and focuses on some strong case studies. In addition to the deep dive on Mongolia, the report flags some great examples from the Americas to Australia, which will help to popularize this concept and enable others to go even further. Some of these examples such as the Fitzroy Basin Scorecard – which help to make technical data accessible to non-technical audiences –would be tough to distinguish from what WWF itself is deploying (Basin Report Cards) in places like the Orinoco.
The mining sector is proactively becoming a part of the solution.
The challenges facing our planet are immense and we need all hands on deck. Companies, financial institutions, public sector agencies and civil society will need to collaborate on a level not yet seen if we are to achieve the Global Goals on water. Both IFC and ICMM explicitly recognize this challenge, are rallying around the SDGs, and are keen to improve.
Recognising that progress on the water stewardship journey requires continual learning and constructive input from all of us, here are three broad questions that the report touched on that are areas we still need to collectively improve upon.
A) When is collective action appropriate (and when it is not).
B) Who should drive collective action (and who decides if it is a success).
C) What does success really look like (or should look like).
Taking these in order, let’s dig in:
A) Collective action isn’t a single “thing” and it isn’t always the answer.
WWF has long advocated for greater collective action around water, largely because companies have a long history of trying to ‘go it’ alone. Solving water challenges is not a singles sport – it is a team game. That said, collective action can take a lot of forms, as the various case studies in the report illustrate, and in some circumstances, it may not even be the best pathway. Instead, in certain situations, unilateral action – guided, of course, by stakeholder input – may be more appropriate (e.g., circumstances that need a timely response that is in everyone’s best interest, such as a spill), while in other circumstances working on established governance mechanisms rather than inventing new forms of collective action may be the optimal route. Indeed, we would suggest that we need to do a better job as a water stewardship community to unpack the different forms of collective action and, most importantly, when they’re appropriate.
We all, mining companies included, will need to become more sophisticated in knowing when to use what form of collective action to make best use of scarce resources and maximize impact. To further this aim, come August, the Water Risk Filter will also help to guide users to different forms of collective action contingent upon shared basin challenges.
B) We need to be careful about who leads collective action.
The reality facing communities (and NGOs) is that there is a massive power imbalance between individuals and NGOs (even us big ones like WWF!) and mining companies and governments. In my experience, many companies, their financiers and government agencies that have an interest in advancing economic development may have a bias towards seeing projects proceed regardless of their impacts. They will invariably be treated with skepticism by communities and NGOs because their motives are usually regarded as biased. When it comes to collective action, trust is critical, and trust is generally better fostered when you have a neutral party involved and a greater degree of transparency (including data). Issues of language and literacy (both reading/writing and the technical literacy required to understand hydrological studies) are real and create large gulfs.
While IFC or a mining company may be well-placed to resource and facilitate a multi-stakeholder dialogue amongst communities, government and other interested water users on shared water challenges, inherent power imbalances and vested interests can impede the creation of trust between all parties.
We continue to believe that a neutral, third party, trusted by all, but especially those without power and with the long-term interests of all parties in mind, is best suited to convene collective action.
C) Success in collective action is not more efficient water use; context defines success.
In the Mongolia case study, the the local government official Dr. Chandmani, “encouraged mining companies to focus on ways to reduce their water consumption and to strictly monitor potential water impacts”. This is echoed in the Voluntary Practice Code under 4.2 and 4.4. Now water efficiency as a notion is a good thing, but the problem with efficiency is that it tends to result in greater overall water use, as it tends to lead to increases in the now more-efficient production. Indeed, water efficiency and impact reduction are essentially ‘less bad’. However, whether water use and savings are meaningful depends on the overall context. Success, when it comes to collective action, needs to be framed beyond the site and around a combination of hydrological and social system sustainability (i.e., what is happening with water levels/balance in the system – not the site and are people content?).
Success needs to account for both water use and the status of the environmental and social context. This notion of ‘Context-Based Water Targets’ – the idea that performance on water should be a ratio between site water use and basin water resource availability is where the future lies. Hopefully, IFC’s efforts to improve integration of water monitoring in local basins can help set the stage to test such approaches in Mongolia.
We’re all still learning as we go on this collective journey of water stewardship – WWF included. The important thing is to share experiences (just as ICMM and IFC have done with this report), learn, and continue to build shared solutions to shared water challenges.