Big Business, Little Splash – Tackling the World Water Crisis

Part 11 of 13 in Wayne Visser's Age of Responsibility Blog Series for 3BL Media.
Apr 17, 2012 9:15 PM ET

Posted by Wayne Visser

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. 

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About the author

Dr Wayne Visser is Founder and Director of the think-tank CSR International and consultancy Kaleidoscope Futures Ltd. He is the author of thirteen books, including The Age of Responsibility: CSR 2.0 and the New DNA of Business (2011), The World Guide to CSR (2010) and The A to Z of Corporate Social Responsibility (2010). He is the author of over 180 publications (chapters, articles, etc.) and has delivered more than 170 professional speeches on in over 50 countries in the last 20 years. In addition, Wayne is Senior Associate at the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, Visiting Professor of Sustainability at Magna Carta College, Oxford, and Adjunct Professor of CSR at Warwick Business School, UK.