Skip to content

The road to Rio+20 is paved with corporate environmentalism

For decades, the industries that thrive on destroying the planet have played a cat and mouse game with the environmental movement. We expose their bad practices and build public opposition, they co-opt our language and attempt to neutralize public opinion by creating confusion.

While in Amsterdam for a meeting with colleagues preparing a civil society intervention against the World Water Forum to take place in Marseilles in March 2012, I decide to see what the cats are up to by attending a few sessions at the industry-led Aquatech forum organized in the context of International Water Week from October 29 to November 4. This is but one of many corporate environmental forums taking place before Rio+20 for industry to converge and promote their products with high level policymakers and International Financial Institutes (IFIs).

A few sessions at the Aquatech conference give me a small sample of what to be wary of as a water justice activist.

Corporate environmental stewardship

Stewardship is the new sustainability” I hear someone say as I walk into a session on the topic. The session is hosted by the European Water Partnership (EWP), which is about to launch its water stewardship initiative on November 24. If we thought sustainability was fuzzy and difficult to enforce, stewardship is even more so. Vague though it may be, sustainability implies a concern for long-term impacts. Stewardship from what I gather at this session is not about the impacts of development, but about feel-good practices that corporations can voluntarily engage in.

Throughout the program, Aquatech features case studies and pilot projects that selectively highlight the good practices of big industry. Rather than discuss the bigger picture, Coca Cola, Dow and other corporations would prefer to package environmental discussions into  warm fuzzy storie about their environmental pilot projects. Coca Cola for example, showcases its commitment to reduce water consumption in its operations. By that Coke means it will continue to pump groundwater in water-stressed regions in the Global South for its beverage products, but will gain PR points by publicizing its efforts to reduce water use in its European bottling plants. In exchange, Coke is granted European Water Partnership branding and access to policymakers.

Likewise, a representative from the chemical company BASF boasts about the new technology the company has developed with DOW to reduce discharges into water in the production propylene oxide — a chemical used in pesticides and plastic bags that is listed as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

These pilot projects also allow them to test the waters politically. The EWP began its water stewardship model in 2008, but has been running pilot projects in the hopes of launching a full-fledged strategy in 2011. They will be able to use these projects to demand less “red tape” for industry partners who are keen to protect the environment. The goal is to replace regulations with guidelines for water users like Coca Cola and BASF.

According to their website, the EWS includes a standard and an evaluation system that makes “business sense for adherents.” It’s not clear what this means, but Ulrike Sapiro, the Coca Cola representative at Aquatech makes no bones about the fact that the company would like to see the elimination of “additional levels of reporting and auditing processes.” It’s no surprise that Coke wants environmental deregulation, but now they have the backing of the European Water Stewardship program.

Resource efficiency

Resource efficiency is a buzz word at corporate environmental forums. There is no doubt we need to ensure that water is used efficiently and we need the technologies that will enable us to do so. But to zero in on making existing industries more resource-efficient takes the focus away from the bigger picture problem of economic development based on unsustainable water use. There is no space to discuss an overhaul of the system driven by unfettered capital growth in favour of more subsistence economies that enable communities to live within the limits of local watersheds.

Once Sapiro is done singing Coke’s praises for rising to the occasion by trying to reduce water used in its bottling plant in Malta where, by her own admission, there are fundamental groundwater quality and quantity issues, I ask her why there is a need for a Coca Cola bottling plant in such a water-stressed region in the first place. She replies “otherwise they would have to import their Coca Cola products” pointing to the high carbon footprint of such an endeavour.

There is no opportunity at this conference to discuss a world without Coca Cola, plastic bags or chemical pesticides.


In a session on innovation, we are told: “You can’t think your way into a new way of acting, you have to act your way into a new way of thinking.” In other words, take advantage of the environmental crisis to get new high tech solutions out into the market as quickly as possible. Skip environmental or social impact studies and eliminate regulatory barriers.

Engineers wax poetic about how they have the solutions, but need the “political will” to get their products out. One of them brazenly quips “climate change is not happening fast enough to create an imperative for change.”

Of course, we all agree that we need more investment into the research and development of clean technologies, but IFIs and corporate engineers strategizing on ways to bypass democracy to force their expensive foreign technologies onto communities in the global south that will need to take out large loans in order to afford them? We’ve seen this before. The Green Revolution that began in the 70s, was supposed to rid the world of famine. Instead the large scale mechanization of agriculture destroyed rural economies and the environment. Farmers lost their land and were driven to poverty. Monoculture and a focus on increased productivity through chemical fertilizers and pesticides led to the loss of regional biodiversity, the depletion and contamination of water and the degradation of soil quality.

The lesson from the green revolution is that technology can heighten inequality and social injustices if it is not developed with the interests of impacted communities in mind. To be truly effective, frontline communities must participate in developing the solutions (technological or otherwise) to the environmental challenges they are encountering and be in full control of how they are implemented.

Wastewater reuse

Prominent among the technologies promoted on the Aquatech program is wastewater reuse. Wastewater reuse in itself is a noble project. We need to stop pumping our groundwater and reduce consumption of potable water overall. But as Maude Barlow has cautioned, allowing industry to destroy water resources then bring in expensive high technology methods for treating the water has led to the loss of public control over this scarce resource. It seems corporations think appropriation of dirty water will be less politically charged than the corporate takeover of clean freshwater.

Tar sands corporations pat themselves on the back for recycling water, but the fact remains that 90% of the massive amounts of water they use is too toxic to return to the watershed and sits permanently in gigantic tailings ponds. According to the Pembina Institute of 5.5 billion cubic metres of tailings are currently impounded in these artificial structures which are leaching toxins into the watershed. Whether dirty or clean, water is part of the commons and industrial use of wastewater must accounted for and regulated according to the public interest and environmental needs.

Climate financing

A session on investments brings government officials from the Netherlands, Bangladesh and India together with representatives from IFIs. The discourse is all about equality. “We’ve moved away from aid to trade” says Martin Van de Groep of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment. He explains that this means “cooperation on a mutual basis.” As the session progresses it becomes clear however that cooperation means creating opportunities for Northern industries in large scale development project in the Global South within the context of climate adaptation.

Given the meetings are hosted by the Netherlands, there is much emphasis on investments in dams and dykes. Flood-prone countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam are showcased for the opportunities they provide in what Naomi Klein refers to as “disaster capitalism.” The primary mechanism for funding these development projects are climate adaptation trust funds administered by the World Bank, which charges administrative fees and maintains control over the projects by imposing guidelines and conditions. They have largely been criticized by civil society groups such as the Bangladesh Equity and Justice Working Group who see these trust funds as yet another way for the World Bank to control economies of the Global South by alleging that the governments of developing countries are too corrupt to manage these funds on their own. It is structural adjustment in the flavour du jour.

These are just a few examples of what I could gather from a brief stop at Aquatech, but the road to Rio will be paved with many of  these fancy corporate environmental gatherings culminating in a corporate sustainability forum right before the summit itself. This week in Bonn, the World Economic Forum is hosting a conference on the green economy focusing on the water energy and food nexus. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) has charged that the program is imbalanced promoting market-based solutions while neglecting other crucial issues.

After a day and a half of Aquatech, I am thrilled to meet with friends working for social and environmental justice in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America to discuss our vision for solutions to the global water crisis – one that starts from the perspective of water as a human right, not a commodity; one that sees the environmental crisis as being exacerbated by inequality not one that will be solved with strategies that will deepen inequality

We hear personal accounts about struggles against privatization from colleagues in Malawi, Ghana and Indonesia and discuss strategies for countering the agenda of the World Water Forum, which is aimed at promoting the commodification of water.

In the contexts of the global water crisis, climate change and the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, corporations and international financial institutions (IFIs) have become quite skilled in packaging their quest for economic growth and market expansion in a new brand of corporate environmentalism. But we have also seen huge wave of activists from around the world taking to streets to demand systemic change. In Marseilles water activists will organize our own forum promoting real solutions to the water crisis. We do not outright reject technology or investment, but demand technological advancements and investment mechanisms that promote social and environmental justice above corporate