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 people, 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
In an effort to tackle these serious and ongoing issues, the theme of this year’s United Nations International World Water Day was “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 determined to raise 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) marked 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?
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 will 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.
In a timely development, this year’s World Water Day also saw 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, 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.
The schemes briefly outlined above highlight some of the broad variety of ways in which businesses are seeking to address the pressing challenges posed by inadequate water quality. A key theme is how many global companies have chosen to work in collaboration with charities and NGOs to reach out to local communities more effectively. This 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 has recently been the target of campaigning in India, where communities located in the neighbourhood of manufacturing sites have complained of water depletion and pollution. 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 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 that their activities can have on the natural environment and some of the world’s most vulnerable people.