The UN Sustainable Development Goal 6, Ensure access to water and sanitation for all, highlights the challenges on water scarcity, poor water quality and inadequate sanitation that still need to be overcome.

Water scarcity currently affects nearly half of the global population. Water is a finite resource and its scarcity can cause communities to scrutinize how it is being used. Coca-Cola Company has faced this as well, water being an essential input for the food and beverage industry.

In 2007, Coca-Cola made a commitment to replenish all the water they use, returning to nature and the communities they serve every litre that goes into the beverages and their production. The commitment was based on a comprehensive assessment of their water use and risks associated with it, as well as opportunities for reduction. Now, 5 years ahead of schedule, they have successfully achieved and exceeded the goal.

We spoke to Coca-Cola’s Senior Director of Global Water Stewardship, Greg Koch, on the different strategies used to achieve this objective and the many challenges faced along the way.

Greg Koch is Senior Director of Water Stewardship for the Coca-Cola Company, with over 30 years experience across environmental, technical and public affairs issues. He is responsible for leading water stewardship across the Coca-Cola Company’s global business system by focusing on water use efficiency and wastewater management; watershed protection; community water initiatives; global awareness and action, and water policy engagement.

Coca-Cola has declared water a key business priority – how is this seen in the company’s business strategy development and implementation?

Water stress has many faces and should not be defined solely by physical availability. Water stress, and therefore risk, are further affected by ;quality, infrastructure pressure, pricing, drought, competing use, increasing demand, climate change, policy, public sector management capacity and regulatory limits . We find that almost all locations have some element of risk and stress to water.

We have a unique relationship with water.  Water is the lifeblood of our business.  It is needed to grow our agricultural ingredients, used in manufacturing, and is in each of our products.  It’s no secret that our bottling plants use water to make our beverages, our finished products are liquid and anyone can easily conclude that we use water.  When water resources are stressed, we are at the table to discuss and help implement solutions.

To better understand and manage water stress and risk, in 2015, we conducted a global plant-level, water-risk assessment to inform our global water strategy. This was a refresh of a risk assessment first conducted in 2004. The process involves a detailed, plant-level survey for each facility, extensive geospatial monitoring of various factors affecting water and a risk quantification model.

We evaluated risk from the perspective of the manufacturing facility and the local community and watershed. The categories for the facility were supply reliability, efficiency, economics, and quality. For the community/watershed, we evaluated watershed sustainability including quantity, quality and the effectiveness of policy, as well as the social considerations of water and sanitation access, community engagement, government interactions and media.

The assessment received strong participation from our business units and bottling partners, and covers 99% of the global manufacturing system.  Technical, public and government affairs, and sustainability functions were fully engaged to ensure cross-functional alignment on the results and action plans.

Key findings from our most recent global water risk assessment include: 35% of risks related to watershed sustainability, 27% related to supply reliability, 11% related to local/social risks, 18% related to efficiency and economics, and 9% related to internal controls and management systems. Our global water strategy is designed to manage these potential risks.

What were the strategies that led to achieving the ambitious water replenishment goal – and 5 years ahead of time?

The risk assessment confirmed the effectiveness of our water stewardship strategy: manufacturing facility performance (efficiency, reuse, stormwater management, and wastewater treatment), water resource management in our agricultural ingredient supply chain, watershed protection, sustainable communities, raising global awareness and action around water challenges, and engagement on water policy.   Why do we go beyond assuring enough water for our plants and being good stewards of water in our plants (efficiency, wastewater treatment, etc.)?  All the water that we use in manufacturing is drawn from local water sources that we share with others.  And, because we sell our products to those adjacent and nearby communities, we have a vested, business interest in water for beyond our operations.

The detailed risk assessment is complemented by a comprehensive source water protection plan program where we also require each operation to gain a clear understanding of where their water comes from, the amount of water available, its quality, water infrastructure condition and needs, policies that govern water and more, all to determine the current or future stress on the water supply. This is part of a global requirement and formalized process to responsibly manage water called Water Resource Sustainability.  This first step, the understanding, is called a Source Water Vulnerability Assessment (we refer to them as SVAs).

Once an SVA is complete, the plant then develops a Source Water Protection Plan (SWPP).  Almost all of our facilities have started to implement locally relevant SWPPs that detail specific risk-mitigation actions to address the vulnerabilities identified by the SVAs and deadlines for completing them. When developing and implementing a SWPP, we engage the community, local government, civil society and other businesses to look for ways to collaborate. We believe this fosters greater transparency, and enables us to work together to address vulnerabilities that may exist since concerns around water quantity and quality are shared by all who rely on a water source in a given area.

SVAs inventory the social, environmental and regulatory risks to the water sources supplying our facilities and the surrounding communities to inform SWPPs. Plans concentrate on shared challenges at the watershed level, from hydrological vulnerabilities to local water management, and often are the basis for our community water projects aimed at protecting and improving water sources.

Beyond the SVAs and SWPPs, the Water Resource Sustainability program requires each production facility to: form and train a water resource management team that includes the plant manager, plant engineers, water resource experts, bottler and business unit technical and public/government affairs representatives; and maintain and update the source water protection plan with source vulnerabilities on five-year intervals or sooner, as conditions warrant.

To date, this program has identified over 3,700 mitigation actions which are part of our system’s collective SWPPs. We continue to implement SWPPs and vulnerability assessments in all facilities globally to address water vulnerabilities. Through this program we address manufacturing needs and growth issues in addition to issues the community faces.

What are your future plans for maintaining this performance on replenishing all the water you use?

We are committed to water stewardship and intend to maintain our replenishment efforts. We will continue to work toward our other water stewardship goals while constantly striving to strengthen our performance.

Reaching 115% water replenishment doesn’t mean our work is complete. Water is the primary ingredient in our products, and we plan to maintain the 100% level as our business sales grow and also expect to continue to advance water projects. Not only is water essential to the sustainability of our business and that of our bottling partners, but it’s also fundamentally important to the communities in which we operate.

To help ensure the long-term availability of this critical resource for both the world at large and our operations, we have a robust water stewardship and management program that includes a formal approach to responsible water risk management programs.

Which were the biggest challenges in achieving the target and how did you convince and ensure your key partners and suppliers were committed to the target as well?

Our biggest challenge came early in our water journey with the detailed, plant-level water risk assessment.  This effort, though initially a lengthy and complex process, brought awareness and education of water issues to our global system.  Importantly, this co-discovery of challenges and subsequent co-development of risk response strategies brought us the strong alignment our program enjoys today.

Do you have a favorite story to share, of a positive impact in a community that this commitment has led to?

One of our largest collaborations is with the United States Agency for International Development and our bottling partners. Together in 2005, we formed the Water and Development Alliance to protect and improve the sustainability of watersheds, increase access to water supply and sanitation and enhance productive use of water in 23 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Since its inception, there has been a combined investment of $29.7 million. As an example, our project in Angola helped construct nine community water tap stands, providing access to an improved water supply to 41,200 people.

Also, In Burirum (a Northeastern province of Thailand), our RAKNAM (Love Water) project has brought about an ever-expanding irrigation network of small canals and retention ponds which help prevent flooding in the rainy season and, at the same time, store water for agricultural use in the drought season. This community-led water management system has increased the income of the Lim Thong villagers three-fold and is widely recognized as a national best practice.