An Urgent Call For Water Conservation

A new report says that the current drought is a warning of things to come.

While global warming is getting rock-star treatment because of Saturday's global Live Earth concerts, growing concerns over freshwater supplies are quietly making waves this summer. A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council released Tuesday describes drought and dry conditions plaguing much of the American West as an unpleasant harbinger.

Farmers, wildlife, and city dwellers will increasingly compete for scarce water supplies, with sprawling Las Vegas at the center of the fight. The report calls for conservation and greater cooperation among stakeholders.

The report comes a matter of days after CEOs of six major corporations made just such a pledge at the 2007 Global Compact Leaders Summit in Geneva. Top executives of the Coca-Cola Co., Levi Strauss & Co., Lackeby Water Group, Nestle S.A., SABMiller, and Suez pledged to set water-use targets, improve supply-chain and watershed management, work toward progressive public policy, engage their communities on water usage, and provide transparency to their own water management programs.

Called the CEO Water Mandate, the pledge was developed under the auspices of the United Nations, which authored a report of its own in 2006 declaring water management and sanitation a global crisis.

The political force of the growing water crisis is perhaps best illustrated by Coca-Cola, which is mired in a public-relations fiasco over its business practices in developing nations like India, where locals are waging a battle against the soft-drink giant for allegedly operating plants that suck groundwater dry and dump sludge into rivers. Coca-Cola has denied any wrongdoing, but the allegations are taking some of the fizz out of Coke's operations.

Smith College in Northampton, Mass., announced in May it was terminating its campus contract with Coca-Cola over the issue. "In light of Coca-Cola's business practices in Colombia and India, Smith will preclude Coca-Cola from the list of approved bidders when we enter the contract renewal process this summer," wrote college President Carol T. Christ in a public letter. She called on the company to assume "more responsible business practices."

Perhaps not coincidentally, Coca-Cola announced in June at the annual meeting of the World Wildlife Fund in Beijing that the company's new goal "is to replace every drop of water we use in our beverages and their production," said E. Neville Isdell, the chairman and CEO. That will be accomplished by conservation, water recycling, and even replacement of water through rainwater harvesting structures.

Lisa Manley, a Coca-Cola spokesperson, says that the company's new splash in the water-conservation scene isn't motivated by any allegations. "We are aware of those criticisms, of course," Manley says. "But we have been focused on water stewardship a good long while."

Whatever the case, water management is coalescing with a number of other stressors, such as global warming, environmental degradation, and questions of economic justice to provide yet another summertime boiling point.

By Bret Schulte