09/20/2012 08:53 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2012

Water: An Issue That Requires Collaboration


Co-authored by Greg Koch

The world faces a projected 40 percent shortfall in freshwater by 2030, according to a study by the 2030 Water Resources Group. Seventy percent of the water humans use now goes toward agriculture. So it's no surprise that the central theme of the annual World Water Week conference held last week in Stockholm is how to produce more food while using less water in the process.

The seriousness of this issue is driving the major consumers of water together -- businesses, civil society organizations, and governments. The goal of water security requires collaboration that improves each sector's role in water use and punctures traditional boundaries dividing these three domains. The private sector is looking for new farming technologies, just as governments are re-evaluating their policies and regulations, and NGOs are working closer than ever with both to see that those goals are accomplished.

The trouble is, water isn't a global issue the way that greenhouse gases are a global issue: There's only one atmosphere - a tonne of CO2 has the same global impact whether it is emitted in New York or New Delhi. Whereas water is almost always a local issue -- but it's a local issue globally.

Many large companies, including Coca-Cola and SABMiller, are participating in a 'bottom-up' approach that we hope will thrust local water-management successes into new global practices. For us this is about managing risk for our business and the communities in which we operate, in countries as diverse as Colombia and India.

Communities in Rajasthan, for example, one of India's driest states, are dependent on groundwater extraction and have seen significant drops in their aquifer levels. Intensified agricultural and industrial activity in the last two to three decades means that areas in Rajasthan such as Neemrana -- where SABMiller India has a brewery -- increasingly suffer from India's long-term struggle with shortages. Through our work with partners in the region, construction of relatively low-cost 'check dams' has led the groundwater level to rise by 18 meters. The dams, made of earth and stone from the surrounding areas, effectively hold back the monsoon rains, so that the water can filter down and replenish the aquifers instead of simply flowing away downstream or evaporating. This is not cutting-edge technology. It doesn't need to be.

In some cases, modern technology can provide solutions to age-old problems. For example, in Punjab, India, farmers rely on wasteful irrigation practices. Uneven land soaks up more water for irrigation than flat land. By introducing a laser-levelling tool, farmers are able to uniformly apply water across their fields. Levelling fields saves up to 30 percent of the water used in traditional flood irrigation methods. It's now being used by local farmers on an area of more than 400 hectares (1.5 square miles).

Laser-levelling technology is relatively low-cost. Some situations require more investment. In Bogotá, years of deforestation have denuded steep mountain slopes of their native plants and trees for food crops and cattle-grazing ground. Unprotected soil run-off pollutes water supplies used by citizens and businesses, requiring intensive and expensive treatment. A collaboration driven by The Nature Conservancy and supported by businesses, government and citizenry successfully encouraged the cattle ranchers to move, literally, to greener pastures, saving the city $4.5 million in avoided filtration costs.

Water security is a shared risk and needs a shared response. For our part, the Coca-Cola system and SABMiller collectively have more than 400 community-watershed projects across the planet. We are also sharing and collaborating with NGOs, international development agencies, local governments, communities and other business partners to collectively address some of the most pressing water risks around the world through the Water Futures Partnership.

Collaboration across companies and sectors is a central thrust of sustainability. We might all have different domains -- think '.org' and '.gov' and '.com' -- but ultimately we need to work together, with local communities too. Companies, even competitors, can work collaboratively. We compete in the marketplace but watersheds are shared by all and all benefit from healthy water resources and sustainable communities. Such collective action is pre-competitive. It's also needed for the security of the planet and its resources we all share.

Andy Wales is SVP Sustainable Development, SABMiller and Greg Koch is Managing Director, Global Water Stewardship at The Coca-Cola Company