Industry water stewardship


This PhD project examines how behaviour change of water users can help to address global water crises. It seeks to understand motivations and constraints for adopting water stewardship by industry and agriculture.


Michael’s PhD thesis titled Managing the interface between humans and nature: a governance perspective has been recommended for award of degree by both examiners.  Michael’s work focuses upon the way in which access to and exploitation of ‘commons’ resources, such as forests and water, can be governed to protect sustainability in different social, economic and political contexts (Northern China, Southern China, Victoria).


Project background and aims

Engaging business in water management was identified almost three decades ago as an important part of the toolbox for addressing the world’s emerging water crises. During the 2000s, some larger multi-national companies began to engage and understand the risk water posed to their business strategies but the scale and depth of this engagement was limited. A report by the 2030 Water Resources Group in 2009 stressed that the globe’s water challenges could not be addressed unless businesses and farmers were engaged in changing attitudes and behaviour toward water. The need was further stressed by a UN-World Bank High-Level Panel on Water in 2018. But, as a report for the IUCN has highlighted, the rate of change and adoption of new approaches remains too slow.

Water stewardship emerged in the mid-2000s as a form of soft law to define good water management by industry, provide a global standard against which major water-users could be assessed and, a brand for recognising good water stewards. Adopting a multi-stakeholder governance model, the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) was established to manage this system, engage water users in adopting the system and having their performance verified against the AWS Standard. While water stewardship has been embraced by a number of large multi-nationals whose brands are associated with water, to be effective it will have to engage a very large number of business and farmers in different parts of the world. This project is interested in what motivates and constrains participation and ultimately building a model for industry engagement.

Widespread adoption of water stewardship could meet the need for engaging business in water management and promoting behaviour change by industrial, agricultural and institutional water-users. To date this research has focused on water stewardship adoption in China, Australia and New Zealand with plans to extend the project to Indonesia in 2020. The project has received some funding from the Australian Government through the Australian Water Partnership and its partner the Alliance for Water Stewardship (Asia-Pacific).


This project is based on quantitative and qualitative empirical research built from an analysis of literature on stewardship systems. Soft law approaches, by definition, do not rely on the enforcement power of the State and are dependent on willing, voluntary participation. Inevitably, to be successful these approaches depend on business taking action that they would not otherwise undertake. A key part of the methodology has been the development and implementation of a comprehensive questionnaire that is administered to water-users who have had some initial contact with the concept of water stewardship. Responses are tested against propositions derived from the literature to see which, if any of these propositions can be validated. This analysis is then used to develop a tentative model for engaging business in water stewardship.


  • Spencer, M (forthcoming 2020), ‘Attitudes, obstacles and incentives: why the culture of water needs to change to build participation and implement behaviour solutions to water crises’ in Sustainable Use of Water by Industry:  Perspectives, Incentives, and Tools, edited by Cheryl Davis and Erik Rosenblum (International Water Association)
  • Spencer, M and Xu, Z (forthcoming 2020), ‘Water stewardship; engaging business, civil society and government in collaborative solutions to China’s freshwater challenges’ in Non-State Actors and Environmental Governance in China, edited by Oran Young, Yijia Jing and Dan Guttman (Palgrave Macmillan).