The Magazine of Corporate Responsibility

Businesses Confront the Water Quality Challenge

by Andrew Williams

For many of us in the so-called developed world, the ability to turn on the tap for clean, fresh water to drink, cook and wash with is taken for granted.  However, for many others, access to a ready supply of disease-free water remains a distant dream.

The stark truth is that over a billion people have little choice but to use potentially harmful sources of water, causing 1.8 million people to die every year from diarrheal diseases, and contributing to the deaths of a further 1.3 million from malaria.

World Water Day

Water_MineralWater_WikimediaIn an effort to tackle these serious and ongoing issues, the theme of today’s United Nations International World Water Day is “Clean Water for a Healthy World,”  reflecting the importance of water quality alongside quantity of the resource in water management efforts.

World Water Day is held annually on 22 March to focus attention on the vital importance of freshwater and promote the sustainable management of freshwater resources.

Global water quality is undergoing rapid decline, mainly as a result of population growth and rapid urbanization, as well as industrial activities such as the discharge of pathogens and chemicals into the environment.  This year’s campaign is aimed at raising awareness about sustaining healthy ecosystems and human well-being by encouraging governments, organizations, communities, and individuals around the world to actively engage in proactively addressing water quality.

Nestlé and Project WET

To showcase its efforts to increase awareness about water quality and sustainability, Nestlé Waters North America (NWNA) has chosen to mark this year’s World Water Day by highlighting its ongoing commitment to educate children about issues related to managing and protecting water resources.

NWNA is the largest corporate sponsor of Project WET, (Water Education for Teachers), an international scientific and educational program, aiming to educate children on the importance of water and the need to protect it.  The program uses hands-on investigations, demonstrations, science experiments, educational games and stories, to stimulate understanding of water resources.  Materials are used by schoolteachers to facilitate teaching their pupils on the topic and come in the form of "ready-to-go" teaching material.

Since 1997, NWNA support has enabled Project WET to train some 340,000 educators and reach more than three million children and 25 million students, in almost 50 countries, with education focused on important topics including water resource management, hydration and health, and environmental stewardship.

A "Water Neutral" Coca Cola?

Coca Cola and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) used World Water Day to announce an additional joint investment of $12.7 million in their global partnership, the Water and Development Alliance (WADA), to support eight new multi-year programs throughout sub-Saharan Africa in Angola, Burundi, Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania.  With the latest funding, Coca Cola said that a total of $28.1 million has been committed since 2005 to 32 WADA projects in 22 countries.

In 2007, Coca Cola pledged to become "water neutral" and return to nature all the water used by its bottling plants.  The pledge coincided with the announcement of a partnership with WWF to conserve and protect freshwater resources around the planet, including a commitment to help conserve seven freshwater river basins, support more efficient water management in the company's operations, and reduce the company's carbon footprint.

The company’s efforts focus on three main areas:

  • Reducing the water used to produce its beverages;
  • Recycling water used in manufacturing processes – returning all water used for global manufacturing processes to the environment at a level that supports aquatic life and agriculture by the end of 2010; and,
  • Replenishing water in communities and nature – balancing the water used in its finished beverages.

In practical terms, the company says its partnership with WWF will see a Coca-Cola hydrogeologist working with a WWF scientist to design integrated watershed management tools and metrics to measure their impact.  It will also involve cooperation with a WWF expert on sustainable agriculture to support more efficient irrigation practices throughout its agricultural supply chain.

Conservation efforts will focus on seven of the world's most important freshwater river basins: China's Yangtze; southeast Asia's Mekong; the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo in the US and Mexico; the rivers and streams of the south-eastern United States; the water basins of the Mesoamerican Caribbean Reef; the East Africa basin of Lake Malawi; and Europe's Danube River.

Pepsi’s Water Challenge

PepsiCo, meanwhile, today announced new global goals to provide access to safe water to three million people in developing countries by 2015 “and to continuously strive for positive water balance in company operations in water-distressed areas.”

Since 2005, PepsiCo says the company and its foundation have committed more than $15 million to organizations working to bring safe water to developing countries, including India, China and Africa.

In India, PepsiCo says its beverage operations reduced water use in manufacturing by more than 45 percent and conserved more than 3 billion liters of water since 2007, thereby “achieving positive water balance – giving back more water than the company consumed.”

Reduced water consumption practices are spurring new technologies involving other natural resources, PepsiCo says.  In the U.S., the company has begun cleaning new Gatorade bottles with purified air instead of rinsing with water.  In the U.K., PepsiCo Walkers' business has already reduced water usage at its largest potato chip facility by 42 percent between 2001 and 2007. One trick: capturing the water that is naturally contained in potatoes and using it to make manufacturing facilities more water self-sufficient.

UNSHAKEN

Today’s World Water Day also sees the launch of UNSHAKEN, a charity: water campaign to fund long-term water solutions for areas of greatest need in rural Haiti.  In tandem with local partners, charity: water, a non-profit bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations, has been funding safe water and sanitation projects in Haiti for two years.

Since the earthquake earlier this year, more than a million people have fled the capital Port-au-Prince to the countryside, where they have minimal or no access to clean, safe water.  charity: water says that whereas a third of the nation previously lacked access to safe water, the impact of the quake has made the situation even more devastating.  As the rural communities continue to swell, so does the risk of deadly waterborne diseases. charity: water is committed to supporting long-term water and sanitation solutions in Haiti.

UNSHAKEN aims to raise awareness of the plight of Haitian’s by telling the stories of eleven areas that have swelled with those displaced since the earthquake and now need long-term water solutions more than ever.  Each region's story, complete with photos and GPS coordinates, will be published on the campaigns’ website. In the coming months, the charity also plans to raise $1.3 million to supply more than 40,000 people in these areas with clean, safe drinking water.

Prior to today’s official launch, the campaign has enjoyed considerable support from companies, including retailer Urban Outfitters, which is selling a custom Haiti relief T-shirt, designed by eco-brand Apolis Activism, to fund clean water for at least 1,500 people.

Collaborations and Potential Conflict

Even though businesses are launching initiatives like these, they are likely to continue confronting the pressing challenges posed by inadequate water quality.

One key emerging theme in the process is the number of global companies that have chosen to work in collaboration with charities and NGOs to more effectively reach out to local communities.  The strategy lends credibility to initiatives and enables businesses to tap into existing networks of support.  If managed correctly, such collaborative approaches can also serve to enhance the reputation of the participating company, not least via an association with organizations that often possess unimpeachable social and environment credentials.

However, such high profile commitments and pledges do not come without potential downsides for corporate and brand reputation.  Coca Cola, for example, has been the target of campaigning in India, where communities located in the neighborhood of manufacturing sites have complained of water depletion and pollution.  In early March, a non-profit activist organization, India Resource Center, said Coca Cola’s continued operations of a plant in water-stressed Kala Dera in Jaipur, India, “are nothing short of criminal.”

(Update:  Following publication of this article, BBC News reported that Coca Cola has been asked by the Indian state of Kerala to pay $47 million in compensation for alleged environmental damage at a bottling plant that was closed in 2005.   Coca Cola has insisted that the charges are unfounded.)

The opposition shows that, unlike carbon, the concept of “neutralising” water use is not well defined and presents a major challenge for the partnership.  This is because CO2 acts globally on the atmosphere.  If a company emits carbon in one area and then offsets it by planting trees in another, perhaps on the other side of the world, the net result to the atmosphere and climate is neutral.  However, since water is very much a local resource, villagers faced with an empty well will take no comfort from the fact that the same amount of water has been pumped into a river on the other side of the world, like, say, the Rio Grande, one of the rivers included under the Coca Cola/ WWF watershed programme.

Whilst businesses should rightly be applauded for any efforts they make to combat the appalling problems caused by inadequate access to clean and safe water, many campaigners would also point to the pressing need for them to be ever more mindful of the impact their activities can have on the natural environment and some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Andrew Williams (TheGreenExpert@btinternet.com) is a U.K.-based freelance writer.

Photo: Walter J. Pilsak, Waldsassen, Germany, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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