Corporate Water Conference Decried by Activists
Corporate conference conveys concern, but activists decry the
exploitation of dwindling fresh water supplies
At a recent San Francisco conference in a plush downtown hotel packed
with big-business representatives, venture capitalists, and public
relations practitioners, some insiders from high-profile multinational
beverage corporations spoke about the moments they realized how crucial
water is as a resource.
For Harry Ott, who formerly worked for the Coca-Cola Company, the
epiphany struck in 1998 when he arrived at a Coke bottling plant in
Darussalam, Tanzania for a routine inspection.
"When we walked into the plant ... I noticed that there was no one
there," Ott explained in a careful, Southern-accented voice. "And
I said to the plant manager there, 'Is it a holiday? Did I mess up
in scheduling this?' And he said, 'No, we had a real severe outbreak
of amoebic dysentery and all the employees have been affected by it.'
At that moment it really brought it home to me ... every human should
have access to clean water and sanitation to be able to maintain a
But then Ott seemed to disavow this last statement, which implied
support for what water rights activists have been pushing for: an
inalienable right to clean drinking water, unmediated by corporations.
As he told the crowd, "I don't necessarily agree with the term 'human
right to water,' because then the lawyers jump in here ... and become
rich off of this back-and-forth, knocking-heads process."
For corporations and advocacy groups alike, defining a human right
to water is more than just a legal battle or academic exercise. As
bottled-water companies weather mounting criticism for depleting aquifers
to sustain profits and nongovernmental organizations point to the
pitfalls of water privatization, control of the ultimate life-sustaining
resource is becoming an increasingly important issue.
Widespread industrial contamination means less potable water to go
around — particularly in developing countries, but in parts of California
too — and intensifying drought due to climatic change means water
scarcity is becoming a bigger problem. Water issues now represent
a big financial risk for multinational companies and the top priority
for communities that depend upon groundwater for their survival, so
battle lines have been drawn for a struggle that is a matter of survival.
The second annual Corporate Water Footprinting conference, part of
a corporate conference series called Action for Sustainable America,
cost approximately $2,000 to attend. Unlike last year, when conference
organizers denied press passes to both the Guardian and the San Francisco
Chronicle, they opted to allow reporters in this time — perhaps as
a show of goodwill after being publicly critiqued for a lack of transparency
(see "Tap dreams," 12/10/08). The event was held at Le Meridien, a
swank Financial District hotel, and was attended by businesspeople
from a variety of high-profile companies.
Representatives from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestle portrayed their
respective corporations as model stewards of the environment, the
opposite of the bad raps they've been branded with by social justice
advocates, who complain that these corporate entities are responsible
for exacerbating water shortages in drought-prone areas. Rather than
profit-driven behemoths sapping communities of a critical resource,
the spokespeople described their companies as environmentally-minded
leaders acutely aware of the widespread lack of access to clean water
and actively trying to hatch solutions to alleviate it.
Dan Bena, director of sustainability, health, safety and environment
for PepsiCo International, kicked off with a presentation about how
an estimated 1.5 billion impoverished people living in developing
countries worldwide lack access to safe drinking water. Showing images
of African children swimming naked in a river, he stressed the frequently
repeated statistic that once every 15 seconds, another child in the
developing world perishes from waterborne illness.
To hear Bena tell it, PepsiCo is emerging as a corporate trailblazer
in protecting people from such a fate. In addition to its conservation
efforts, it has donated to an organization that provides microloans
to families for small-scale water infrastructure projects, he said.
And at the urging of one of its shareholders, it recently agreed to
sign a commitment supporting "the human right to water.
But when asked whether PepsiCo, the parent company of Aquafina, has
a strategy for reducing the widespread use of bottled water — a flashpoint
for environmentalists because it taxes aquifers, requires extensive
shipping, and uses tons of plastic to produce — Bena didn't have a
straight answer. "We are evaluating it, but I can't tell you," he
said. "The critics are certainly very strong, but we think that people,
by and large, want the convenience that bottled water provides."
In San Francisco, some of the beverage companies' harshest critics
organized a counter-conference to the 2008 Corporate Water Footprinting
conference. This year, one of the counter-conference participants
was seated on the same panel with Bena and the former Coca-Cola representative.
Mark Schlosberg, California director of Food & Water Watch, made it
clear that he views the human right to water through a very different
lens than the other panelists. "The 'human right to water' is not
a concept for corporations to implement," Schlosberg said, relaying
what was perhaps an unpopular message to a tough crowd. "Just as free
speech is not a concept for corporations to implement. The human right
to water is a concept which says that nobody should be denied access
to clean water for basic human needs. It's not a question of whether
or not a corporation wants to adhere to that. It's the responsibility
of governments to create laws, and of corporations to follow laws.
I don't think that the basic human right to water ... is alienable,
just like certain constitutional rights are also inalienable and can't
be contracted away."
Speaking by phone several days later from New Delhi, India, Amit Srivastava,
executive director of the India Resource Center, explained his perspective
on the human right to water: "For us, the right to water means the
community has control over its water resources. It is our fundamental
human right to live free of pollution of water." As for PepsiCo's
efforts, "It sounds all good, but what is the reality on the ground?"
Srivastava, the driver behind the counter-conference to last year's
Corporate Water Footprinting Conference, spends half the year in India
working in rural agrarian villages, where he says the impacts of Coca-Cola's
operations are hugely detrimental to people's interests. PepsiCo has
caused its share problems in India too, Srivastava said.
"Seventy percent of Indians make a living with agriculture," he explained.
"They rely on groundwater — the same groundwater Coca-Cola uses to
meet its production needs." Tens of thousands of farmers have been
affected by a dearth of water in communities where Coca-Cola plants
are sited, he says, and many have also been adversely affected by
water contamination linked to the manufacturing facilities. As water
becomes scarce, crops dry out and women must walk farther away to
haul fresh water back home.
On Nov. 30, Srivastava said the India Resource Center helped bring
1,000 people out to a rally against Coca-Cola. "We've launched an
international campaign to hold Coca-Cola accountable," he said, explaining
that the goal is to "apply market pressure for the abuses they continue
to commit in India."
Of particular concern is the village of Kala Dera, located in an area
that was identified as a water-stressed region more than a decade
ago, Srivastava said.
Nonetheless, the construction of a new Coke bottling plant forged
ahead there in 2000. A severe drought plagued the region this year,
and Kala Dera experienced the sharpest drop in groundwater levels
ever recorded, according to Srivastava. "When the rains didn't come,
the crops failed, and there was a sharp increase in the use of groundwater,"
he said. "For all its talk, Coca-Cola continued to mine for water,
even as the community did not have ready access."
According to Denise Knight, a Coca-Cola Company representative who
spoke at the Corporate Water Footprinting Conference, the multinational
giant uses a total of 313 billion liters of water annually to produce
129 billion liters of soft drinks, juice, water, and other beverages.
Knight said Coca-Cola is committed to "replenish" the places it operates
by returning the equivalent of the water it uses to communities and
water bodies. Trumpeting a splashy green catchphrase, "Water Neutrality,"
Knight acknowledged that the term itself might be somewhat misleading
because, "as our business grows, no matter how efficient we are, we'll
still use more water." This program essentially consists of making
it a goal to live up to its self-guided wastewater treatment standards
(wastewater is treated in 80 percent of its 1,000 facilities, Knight
noted), stepping up conservation efforts and funding small-scale projects
like rainwater harvesting.
Knight couched it in terms of fiduciary responsibility: in the past
decade, Coca-Cola's Securities and Exchange Commission filings have
listed water shortages and poor water quality as financial risks to
company profits. A third area of risk for the company is public perception,
an uphill battle in India.
Srivastava summed up his opinion of Coca-Cola's "Water Neutrality"
pitch as "hogwash." In reality, the company is extracting clean, drinkable
water from poor communities that need it, leaving behind processed
wastewater that people can't drink and calling it "neutral."
"It really is lies dreamed up by their PR department," he said. "They're
trying to suggest that Coca-Cola has no impact whatsoever on water
resources. This is outrageous."
Srivastava said the conference is essentially a scam. "We see the
Corporate Water Footprinting conference as nothing more than a greenwashing
effort by companies that are the biggest abusers of water. We see
it as just you guys in suits and ties. The communities that are suffering
as a result, their voices are never there."
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