Posted by Diane Farsetta on September 01, 2009

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.

Comments

Great job Diane!
Absolutely loving the investigative journalism and telling it like it is :)

The depths to which corporations will sink to make short-term, short-sighted profits are truly despicable. I'm flabbergasted that Nestle once again sponsored World Water Week. If corporate lobbyists continue to woo and pay off potentially progressive, big picture politicians around the globe, we're all in for a helluva difficult century.

we need to be right on top of what's going on with the water situation! it's ironic how major companies have "charitable arms" or other non-profit elements, which probably only offsets a tiny percentage of the damage they do with their profitable arms. that is the epitome of greenwash posturing & spin!

"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."

The paragraph above had me laughing histerically and cringing all at once. I guess we should definitely suspect something is up when beer makers are trying to present themselves as a "less water-intensive" at a water summit. The immediate logic seems to be: "I guess we should all become alcoholics so we can conserve the world's water supply." This is outrageous. It is also troubling to know that these corporations are taking the discussion away from focusing on the devastation of the world's water supply as a result of climate disruption and turning it into a beauty pageant of faux "social responsibilty" among beverage companies. How could anyone expect a hard-hitting conclusion on policy to come out of such an event?

The devastation of the world's water supply is due not only to climate change but in large part to the amount of water it takes to bring a calf to market weight: the same amount a family of five consumes in a year! Think about this next time your city issues a no car washing edict. Think about it the next time you order from the dollar menu.

That's a really good point. Very well observed. The governments are always trying to blame everything on us, but really important things such as this is never considered. Thanks a lot :-) - Ray

I note that "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".

Yes it is part of the solution. However, the other side of the coin as Lovelock/Tickell/Attenborough correctly states is "population". Without support for sustainable families and sustainable population any amount of lecturing about using water wisely, and saving 10% of water via metering and not running the tap when brushing your teeth is going to be totally inadequate. I'm not sure how you help vulnerable low income countries without appearing either authoritarian, or patronising... but limit their populations they must!!

Two Florida women took their growth management issue to the Florida governor and cabinet. Water and protection of the fragile environment are issues. Outcome was in favor of Susan Woods and Karen Ricio. (St. Petersburg Times, Sept. 14). Susan has been speaking on water for quite a while. Then, NCLC Reports (Jul/Aug Consumer Rights and Usury Edition) reported on growth of Pre-Paid Utitlity Meters. Water meters in some jurisdictions, including FL. This relates back to CPI's THE WATER BARONS and use of meters in lesser countries where citizens take coins to the local pump to draw their water rations. Water quality is most important!