Here’s why: All businesses rely on healthy, sustainable communities. Sustainable communities require sufficient water. So even if your business isn’t water-intensive (and there’s probably more H2O hidden in your supply chain than you think), its long-term viability rises or falls with the amount of clean, fresh water available to everyone.
The stress on the planet’s water is well-documented, from America’s Great Plains to sub-Saharan Africa to China’s Yangtze basin. Pollution, poor management, inefficient- and over-use are real challenges today while population growth, drought and climate change pose imminent threats to water sources and the ecosystems, communities, and businesses that depend on them. And while it is true that all water problems are local, the effects of those problems reverberate globally. When agricultural production is curtailed, when power generation is limited, or when millions of girls can’t go to school because of a lack of water and sanitation facilities, somewhere, some way, your business is going to feel it. When communities suffer, businesses suffer – along with the individuals and families who rely on them for goods, services and jobs.
Here’s the good news: Earth’s accessible fresh water, all 93,000 cubic kilometers of it, is infinitely renewable. There is enough water to meet our environmental, social and economic needs. Even better, we know how to fix many of the world’s water problems by treating, moving, conserving or replenishing water. Governments, businesses, NGOs and communities have been chipping away at water challenges for decades. Real progress has been made.
We have answers. Now we need coordinated action.
Businesses, governments, NGOs and civil society must come together and make the tough decisions and investments that will ensure plenty of water for all. This means protecting and caring for water sources as never before. It means improving existing water infrastructure and creating infrastructure where it doesn’t exist. It means making tough decisions on the best use of available water.
It is time for all of us to do the hard work of changing the way we think about water. In the developed world, particularly, our familiarity with water, and the ease with which we get it, has lulled us into taking water for granted. The process that brings us our water is largely invisible; we enjoy the illusion of infinite supply, and pay virtually nothing. We must acknowledge the true costs of protecting, treating and delivering water, and develop models that reflect that cost. We must begin to value water as the essential and precious resource it is.
We need, in short, a watershed moment—a new era of cooperation, respect and action.
Businesses can lead the way. They can first increase their own water efficiency, which has profound bottom-line benefits as well as environmental ones. They can use their influence to promote sustainable water use in their supply chains. And they can partner with governments, NGOs and others to devise solutions that are greater than the sum of their parts.
Many companies are doing just this. Walmart, McDonald’s, H&M, Unilever, Intel and many others are conserving water within their operations and looking beyond their fences to influence water stewardship where they do business.
Since 2007, The Coca Cola Company and World Wildlife Fund have worked in partnership to improve water efficiency in Coca-Cola bottling plants, reduce the company’s carbon emissions, conserve some of the world’s most important freshwater basins, and promote sustainable agriculture. Together, we’ve worked with sugarcane growers, peer companies and other NGOs to launch the first global metric standard for more sustainable sugarcane production, which includes parameters for water management. We recently extended our partnership so we can protect more river basins, improve water use in Coca-Cola’s value chain, and convene influential partners to help meet the world’s water needs.
The outcomes of our partnership show that change is possible, and that business can make an enormous contribution to water conservation. But none of us can make large-scale, lasting change alone. It’s going to take a worldwide effort by every sector of society.
Water connects us. Whatever our business, whatever we do, and wherever we do it, we share a mutual dependence on water. Proper stewardship of the world’s water is well within our reach. Let’s let water unite us in seizing this moment, in bringing our best to solving the world’s pressing water challenges. Our destiny, after all, is a shared one. And our response in this pivotal moment will ultimately determine whether we all sink or swim.
Muhtar Kent is chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company. Carter Roberts is president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund, US.