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The View from World Water Week 2008

This year’s World Water Week in Stockholm was a sterling example of multi-stakeholder collaboration in action.

Since its inception in 1991, the event has advanced the global water agenda by identifying timely, cross-cutting themes and becoming the premier forum on water issues. This year again, it was clear that when business, government, NGOs, capacity-building institutes and inter-governmental organizations converge, powerful ideas result.

The Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), the event organizer, deserves its place as an international thought leader. Anders Berntell, SIWI’s Executive Director, welcomed this year’s attendees by noting that the congress theme – “Progress and Prospects on Water: For a Clean and Healthy World, with a Special Focus on Sanitation” – touches the diverse aspects of the global water crisis.

Notable presentations were made on the themes:  “The Role of Sanitation for the Millennium Development Goals” (of particular interest to PepsiCo, as we formally affirmed our commitment to the MDGs with UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown in August of 2007), “Waste as a Resource, Pricing for Affordable Water and Sanitation,” and “Changing Human Behavior.”  These discussions raised familiar, but critical, messages:

1)    Water quality is inextricably linked to global health, with improper sanitation at the nexus;
2)    Increased funding (from governments, but also from public-private partnerships) is needed to improve sanitation in the most underserved of areas if we are to have any reasonable chance of meeting the MDGs by their target date of 2015 – we are already past the midway point; and
3)    The solutions, to large extent, remain technically simple-community engagement in sanitation and hygiene education, toilets, and water treatment and disinfection.

One World Health Organization representative from Kenya made a moving plea for the importance of comprehensive water safety plans, underscoring the need to establish adequate water quality monitoring in developing economies. Where these exist, they are often sub-standard, poorly-funded, or the casualty of government corruption. Later in the week, during a stakeholder meeting of United Nations CEO Water Mandate signatories, an NGO participant suggested that industry could tackle the problem of inadequate water quality data. Business can help communities and local governments make more informed decisions by sharing internal water quality data. This example of collaboration in action was repeated throughout the week.

One topic, however, stood apart – “virtual water.”  In simplest terms, virtual water is the water used in the production of a good or service (especially in agriculture). Understanding virtual water “flows” can have an earth-changing impact on the problems of water scarcity.  By mapping the virtual water hotspots, government and industry can make better joint planning decisions. But sound science is still the key to achieving balance.  Earlier this year in Kenya, for example, the boycott of rose farms – arising from claims that they siphon off too much water – had a crippling effect on the local community’s socio-economic standing.  Looking to the virtual water hotspot landscape, nations must begin to assess their long-term economic viability in the context of the flows of embedded water. This could mean exporting water-sparing goods from a water-stressed geographies and importing water-using goods from a water-abundant geographies.

In my view, the concept of “virtual water” could have a potentially dramatic impact on the scourge of water scarcity. (Others clearly agree, as one of the concept’s early pioneers, Professor John Anthony Allan of King’s College London, won this year’s prestigious Stockholm Water Prize.)

Take rice as an example. While rice is not considered a water-rich grain, Dr. Arjen Hoekstra – another prominent attendee in great demand during World Water Week for his work on virtual water as a “water footprint” – suggested that, on average, one kilogram of rice “contains” about 3,500 liters of embedded water. Clearly, this is an opportunity for significant water conservation.

Corporations are recognizing the significance of this idea and many are working to apply it. PepsiCo is currently piloting a program in India based on the technique of direct seeding. This procedure reduces the water used to grow rice by up to 40 percent.  For perspective, planting just under 2,000 hectares of land by direct-seeding rice would result in water savings equivalent to the water used by all of PepsiCo’s food and beverage plants in India.  Imagine the impact – and opportunities – that could be had by thinking of goods and services in terms of their “virtual water” use.  At PepsiCo, we are transforming our product portfolio to provide healthier products for the consumer, based on local preferences.  It is conceivable, however, that ten or 20 years from now, the consumer may not have the luxury of deciding what they want–instead, their choices may be dictated by the virtual water flows of their geography.

The first step is aligning on a uniform approach to calculating water footprints.  Hoekstra and his colleagues are well on their way to applying a measurement tool, but the world lags behind.  We should heed the lessons from the climate change arena, where multiple and disparate initiatives for calculating carbon footprint might have slowed progress on this front.  Be forewarned, however, water is not carbon.  As difficult as it was over the years to understand carbon life cycle assessment, the analog for water will be infinitely more complex.

The debate over innovative concepts, such as “virtual water,” is what makes World Water Week  perhaps the world’s most influential gathering for collaborative conversations around water. Discussing these concepts is vital. Implementing them and taking them to scale is what will create lasting change in our communities.

Dan Bena is currently the director of Sustainability, Health, Safety, and Environment for the International Division of PepsiCo.

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