Beverage industry seeks to curb water usage

local communities in the Indian state of Kerala strongly protested against Coca-Cola’s operations there.

Residents blamed Coke for severe water shortages in the region by overusing local supplies and improperly disposing of contaminated sludge.

The company has denied any wrongdoing, but local communities did not renew Coke’s license for water usage.

As a result of the incident, Coke and other companies have taken notice and are working with researchers to minimize a bottling plant’s impact on local water supplies.

So far, Coke has worked with WWF on water protection, access, and efficiency projects in more than eighty-six countries.

Greg Koch, the director of global water stewardship at Coca-Cola, said that every plant has been instructed to conduct water assessments to analyze the vulnerability of local water sources and to create strategies to help solve any problems.

Briscoe says, however, that focusing on cutting water use at bottling plants alone does not make a big enough impact on water consumption.

“These are good things to do, but as far as water goes it makes no difference,” he said

Briscoe is urging firms to take an even more proactive role and work with locals to set up better water management systems, especially in the agricultural process.

Arjen Y. Hoekstra, the scientific director of the Water Footprint Network, says that as much as 98 percent of the industry’s water usage comes from growing the ingredients used to make drinks.

“The industry can play in a much bigger game by saying, ‘Yes, we are good corporate citizens, how can we work with governments to put in place systems that are better for everybody and more predictable for us?”’ Briscoe said.

Experts say, however, that few companies are actively working with the agricultural industry to reduce water consumption.

SABMiller, an international brewing company which produces beer like Miller High Life, Peroni, and Coors Light, is one of the few companies working to comprehensively reduce its water consumption.

In conjunction with WWF and GIZ, a German development agency, SABMiller calculated its water footprint in five countries to determine exactly how much water its suppliers and breweries used.

Andy Wales, the head of sustainable development for SABMiller, said, “That enables us to pinpoint where we have a problem or may in the long term.”

Wales added, “We want to change what we do now so we make sure that does not pose a risk to our business in the future.”

In addition, the company is also assisting local farmers to reduce their water consumption. It is currently working on projects in eight countries to bolster local water supplies that benefit residents as well as SABMiller.

In Columbia, the company has partnered with Nature Conservancy to help farmers minimize runoff from waste and pesticides from deforested lands by paying them to plant hedges and trees to prevent cattle from grazing on steep slopes.

These efforts have led to sharp reductions in the cost for water treatment plants in both the city of Bogota and SABMiller’s plants.

As water scarcity becomes an increasing reality, more companies will likely be forced to adopt similar strategies to SABMiller’s, but the task will not be easy as water usage issues involve a complex web of stakeholders.

Koch at Coca-Cola says, “You don’t buy from a farmer, you buy from a trader, who gets it from a processor. Your commercial relationship is two, three or more steps removed from the actual farmer.”

“It’s a challenge because of the level of influence you have,” he said.