Even critics of World Water Week, held annually in Stockholm, Sweden, agree that it's an important forum where thousands of people working on water issues share information.
This year's event, held from August 16 to 22, placed special emphasis on the relationship between water and climate change. The closing statement (pdf) was literally a message to COP15, the major United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, this December. "Water is a key medium through which climate change impacts will be felt," it reads, adding that "water-related adaptation" should be seen as part of the solution. The statement also calls for funding "to assist vulnerable, low income countries already affected by climate change," along with longer-term adaptation efforts.
So why are there critics of World Water Week? In a word, Nestlé.
In 2007, not only did the world's largest bottler of water sponsor World Water Week, but speakers were also given bottled water to drink. Civil society groups protested and the plastic bottles disappeared, but Nestle did not. The 2009 event was again sponsored by Nestle, along with Sweco, a sustainable engineering and design company offering "solutions for water supply, wastewater treatment, solid waste management and site remediation"; Black & Veatch, an engineering, consulting and construction company that calls itself "one of the world's foremost providers of solutions for energy and water needs"; and the charitable arm of Femsa, "the largest beverage company in Latin America."
In other words, World Water Week has become an opportunity for companies selling water, beverages, and water and sanitation services to grab a seat at the table, as water practices and policies are discussed. It must also be a networking gold mine, where companies can pitch their services to government representatives from around the globe.
Another example of the creeping corporate influence is an international public opinion survey released to coincide with this year's World Water Week. The survey, which received media attention, found that more than 90 percent of respondents consider "water pollution" and "a shortage of fresh water" to be serious problems. The summary of survey results interpreted respondents' identifying both governments and companies as responsible for ensuring clean drinking water as "indicating that [public-private] partnerships are an important component to resolving the world's fresh water sustainability challenges."
The survey was funded by the Molson Coors Brewing Company.
Molson Coors wasn't the only beer company lifting a frosted mug to World Water Week. SAB Miller paired with the environmental group WWF on a report presented at the event. After studying the water use, or "footprint," for Miller beers made in South Africa and the Czech Republic, the report concluded that "the total water involved ... is overwhelmingly used on the farm rather than in the brewery." Conveniently for SAB Miller, WWF added that "beer's water footprint is relatively small, with a recent Pacific Institute study finding that coffee, wine and apple juice all have water footprints more than three times that of beer."
Somehow, promoting beer as a less water-intensive beverage choice doesn't quite seem to meet the World Water Week goal of "advancing the water, environment, health, livelihood and poverty reduction agendas."
Carrying water for corporate social responsibility
World Water Week is only one way in which corporations seek to promote themselves as good "citizens" on water issues.
Molson Coors is a good case study. The beer maker recently partnered with Circle of Blue, which describes itself as an "international network of leading journalists, scientists and communications design experts." Molson Coors also belongs to the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable, a corporate attempt "to define a common framework for [environmental] stewardship" -- without any pesky regulatory agency or independent watchdog groups present.
Molson Coors also signed onto the CEO Water Mandate, part of the United Nations' voluntary corporate social responsibility (CSR) program, the Global Compact. Civil society groups fault both the Global Compact and CEO Water Mandate for allowing corporations to reap PR benefits from associating with the UN, without making significant changes to business practices. In March 2008, an international coalition of grassroots groups working on water issues wrote (pdf) to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, "Led by Coca Cola, which has a highly questionable track record when it comes to water takings and water pollution, the companies which have signed on to the CEO Water Mandate all have a vested interest in securing control over water sources and services in times of increasing water scarcity." The letter prompted the UN to develop a "Transparency Framework," which CEO Water Mandate critics found less than reassuring.
Perhaps the heaviest public scrutiny -- and most elaborate "social responsibility" posturing in response -- involves the bottled water industry. It has become increasingly rare for bottled water brands to launch without a non-profit partnership or other CSR angle.
A prime example is Ethos, a bottled water brand launched by Starbucks and Pepsi in 2008. Ethos' partner is H20 Africa, an organization co-founded by actor Matt Damon that carries out drinking water projects in African communities. For each bottle sold, five cents go to the Ethos Water Fund of the Starbucks Foundation. Ethos ads proclaim, "Every bottle makes a difference." The slick marketing campaign doesn't mention that Starbucks and Pepsi both declined an earlier opportunity to partner with a bottled-water company that gives all of its proceeds to charity.
Earlier this year, Primo Water Corporation tried to out-ethic Ethos. Primo offers "single-serve water ... packaged in eco-friendly bottles made from plant-derived bioplastic." In its work for Primo's launch, the PR firm Porter Novelli "targeted more than 140 influential CSR, green, and mommy bloggers," reported PR Week. Primo ponied up to sponsor the 2008 BlogHer conference, while Porter Novelli "formed a consortium of recycling and waste management companies and groups, academics, and retailers," to explore "viable solutions for recycling bioplastic." The latter is an imperative for a company promising "zero waste," but lacking "a scalable, economically viable way" to recycle its supposedly green bottles.
None of these tactics -- cultivating a "responsible" public image, co-opting non-profits, setting up voluntary self-regulatory structures, and influencing policy debates from the get-go -- is anything new in corporate public relations. But the primary importance of water to life, not to mention the increasing stresses on water resources from population growth and climate change, make the corporate warping of water policy and philanthropy especially troubling.
Diane Farsetta is the Center for Media and Democracy's senior researcher.