Big Business, Little Splash

Big Business, Little Splash:

Tackling the World Water Crisis

Blog by Wayne Visser

Part 11 of 13 in the Age of Responsibility Blog Series for 3BL Media.

About 2.4 billion people live in water-stressed countries, according to a report by the Pacific Institute. Water demand in the next two decades will double in India to 1.5 trillion cubic meters and rise 32% in China to 818 billion cubic meters, according to the 2030 Water Resources Group. China is home to roughly 20% of the world’s population, but has only about 7% of the world’s water. That means there are around 300 million people living in water-scarce areas. According to a World Bank report, water scarcity and pollution reduce China’s gross domestic product by about 2.3%.

When I interviewed Fred Pearce about his book, When the River Runs Dry, he told me that, for the average Westerner to get through the day, it takes about a hundred times their own weight in water – that’s every day; not every year, every day. The water used is mainly to grow the things that we eat. Pearce gave me some of the facts and figures: To grow a kilogram of wheat takes about a ton of water, a kilogram of rice takes more. Once you start feeding grains to livestock to produce meat and dairy products, the numbers are even higher. To produce enough meat for one hamburger takes about 10,000 litres of water, which is about 10 tons. If you are a vegetarian you are not doing too much better because it typically takes 4,000 litres of water to produce one litre of milk.

That’s for food. What about drinks? Coca-Cola sells 1.5 billion beverages a day in over 200 countries and uses about 2.5 litres of water to produce one litre of its products. The company received its water wake up call in 2002, when residents of Plachimada, a village in India’s southern state of Kerala, accused the company’s bottling plant there of depleting and polluting groundwater. Two years later, the local government forced Coke to shut down the plant. In 2006, their situation got worse when a New Delhi research group found high levels of pesticides in Coca-Cola and PepsiCo’s locally produced soft drinks, resulting in several Indian states banning their products. Coke denied any wrongdoing, claiming that bore-hole water fed farming was mainly responsible for lowering the water table and that the pollution claims were unsubstantiated. However, the public perceptions battle had already been lost.

Speaking to Time magazine in 2008, Jeff Seabright, the company’s vice president of environment and water resources, admitted that Coke had mishandled the controversy. ‘If people are perceiving that we’re using water at their expense, that’s not a sustainable operation,’  he said. This realisation resulted in a serious shift in Coke’s strategic positioning of its CSR towards tackling water as priority number one. ‘It’s great that companies used to hand out checks for scholarships or to clean up litter,’ said Seabright, ‘but increasingly the real relevance is using the company’s core competence to address issues that are of societal concern.’ And for Coke and the communities in which it operates, the concern is water …

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Cite this blog

Visser, W. (2012) Big Business, Little Splash: Tackling the World Water Crisis, Wayne Visser Blog Briefing, 17 April 2012.

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