Water Witness International

Water Witness International

At a glance


  • Environment
  • International development

Other details

Geographical remit: 


In 2008 a group of scientists and development practitioners founded Water Witness International to carry out research, take action and advocate for better water resource management. Having worked on water issues all over the world and for many years we saw a clear opportunity to craft new solutions to tackle the world’s spiralling water resource challenges. Business-as-usual approaches by governments, donors, the private sector and NGOs weren’t working, and in some cases they were part of the problem.  We envisaged a new type of NGO.  One led by water resource managers with hands on experience of water politics and practice, providing on the ground, people centred action, cutting-edge research and targeted advocacy. 

Our theory of change towards a fairer, more secure water future is based on our conviction that: 

1. People power or, citizen agency can activate water law and improve water security for all.  Helping communities to understand their rights, demand action and hold water managers to account plays a vital but neglected role in better water governance. Our innovative work on social accountability monitoring drives pro-poor activation of water policy and law.

2. Engagement with the private sector is central to ensuring a fair water future.  Working constructively with businesses, harnessing the reach of markets and demand for ethical production can drive sustainable resource use alongside economic and social progress.  This is why Water Witness International has been instrumental in the theoretical and practical evolution of corporate water stewardship.

3. Governments need to deliver on their responsibilities for water resource management.  Government agencies need adequate funds, well-trained staff and political authority in order to manage water for the benefit of society now and in future. We work to improve policy and action on water, and support smarter delivery through advice, training and oversight. We also challenge and help donors and NGOs to plan and deliver more effective aid.



Helping vulnerable communities
Most countries have decent water policies and laws that prioritise the basic needs of people and the environment. Legal rights and duties are set out to protect users against degradation by pollution, depletion through unsustainable abstraction, damage from floods and droughts and conflict.

The trouble is that implementation is often weak because those responsible lack capacity, finances, or political support. Powerful water users understand the law and use it to guard their needs and interests. Vulnerable communities reliant on water and related ecosystems for their health and wellbeing are less well connected and so less well protected. Lax water regulation disproportionately impacts the poor.

We work with communities to help them understand and activate the law. We connect them to the responsible public authorities and legal processes. We equip communities to formally challenge duty bearers so that their rights on water are realised. This approach has unlocked action to solve difficult water problems such as conflict, over-abstraction, insecure tenure, or exposure to pollution, floods and droughts. In serious cases of water mismanagement we will facilitate community access to legal redress. 

Through citizen agency and community activation we strengthen water governance. Civil oversight of water law implementation is a crucial component of improved resource management and climate resilience. Tracking the responses to citizen action also helps to diagnose systemic challenges. It generates evidence that we then use to advocate for positive change so that the needs of the most vulnerable are included in water resource decision-making.  This approach is termed social accountability monitoring.

Driving water stewardship
The private sector - from small businesses, corporations, commercial farmers, banks, commodity traders, retailers to end consumers - exerts a huge influence on water resources. Through the scale of abstraction and consumption and the quality of wastewater, private sector water users shape the viability of water resources. By extension they also shape water resource management options.

Water foot-printing provides a means of measuring the volumes of water used in the value chains of commodity production. Water-footprints show just how intimately the global economy and consumption is intertwined with local water use and well-being in places of production.  For example, 62% of the water consumed in the UK is sourced overseas through ‘virtual water’, in food, clothes, and other consumables. Much of this comes from developing countries where the associated jobs and export revenue are vital contributions to economic progress.  This interconnectedness presents new risks where water needed for export markets is scarce, or where use impacts the environment, economy and local people.

Water stewardship has emerged as a private sector response to such water risks. Some of the world’s most influential companies are now targeting improved water and river basin management as key components of operations and strategy.  Exciting potential for progress exists if the power, reach and influence of business can be harnessed to improve water security for all, rather than merely for some. 

Water Witness International has played a leading role in shaping this new stewardship agenda: investigating and reporting on performance, flagging the opportunities, exposing the many risks, and shaping the debate. We have initiated and guided collective action, and developed standards and principles for measurable contributions to sustainable water management within, and beyond the fence line of company operations.  

Improving governance and aid
Getting water governance ‘right’ is central to our collective wellbeing, and social and economic progress at a local and global scale. In many countries the focus is on rapid development of water resources for irrigation, energy, industrial use and to meet the needs of growing cities. An absence of good water governance limits the economic benefits of development, and contributes to growing inequity, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and increased vulnerability to climate change.

These implications of poor water governance can take years to surface, and because impacts are sometimes felt only by poor people problems can be hidden from view.  Water resource management also competes poorly for governance attention, investment and aid when compared to issues such as health, education and roads. Added to these challenges, there is little evidence to tell us how best to manage water resources and few agreed indicators to help us track progress or target assistance. 


Against this backdrop efforts to support water security by international donors and NGOs have sometimes been inadequate.  Despite the billions of dollars of aid targeting water and related issues like climate change, tangible improvements on the ground are hard to find. Investments have often been too small or short-term, or have been directed at the wrong things, in the wrong ways.  Some initiatives seek to simply ‘build capacity’ and shy away from the complex political and systemic problems that hold back progress.  Others impose inappropriate models or blueprints, or technical and financial control that erode local ownership and impact. 

Smarter ways of supporting governance and delivering aid are urgently needed to ensure better value for money for citizens in both donor and recipient countries.



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