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Brewers Pledge to Cut Water Use

Timothy Spence

BRUSSELS, Feb 24 2011 (IPS) - Beer manufacturers sell nearly 548 million litres of brew each day, but with every bottle, they are using many times that amount of water on a planet facing mounting resource challenges.

Ludo Degelin: "AB InBev plans to reduce water use by 28 percent in Western Europe by 2012"  Credit: Dieter Telemans/IPS

Ludo Degelin: "AB InBev plans to reduce water use by 28 percent in Western Europe by 2012" Credit: Dieter Telemans/IPS

Mindful of the impact on fragile freshwater sources in an industry heavily dependent on water, brewers are pledging significant cuts in freshwater use as the demand for their products grows. They are also forging alliances with conservation groups and international organisations to urge other industries to follow their example.

“The business world is waking up to water in a way that they haven’t before,” Stuart Orr, freshwater manager of the environmental group WWF International, told a conference in Brussels Thursday. “From now and into the future, our lives are going to be determined by increased water scarcity.” IPS and the Global Compact Network of Belgium organised the conference through the sponsorship of Anheuser-Busch InBev.

Prompted by dwindling freshwater reserves and pollution, the beverage industry has been particularly active in forming associations and setting corporate polices aimed at cutting water use, Orr said. “Risks are something companies understand,” he said. “One thing we all agree on is, we have to be cooperative on water.”

The major global brands as well as less known breweries and spirit makers vow to streamline consumption amid warnings that many regions, particularly in the southern hemisphere, face serious droughts and dire freshwater scarcity in the decades ahead.

Belgian-based Anheuser-Busch InBev, with 130 production plants worldwide, plans to cut water use per bottle of beer from 5.5 to 3.5 litres by next year. Other leading companies, such as SAB Miller and Heineken, have made similar commitments, while bottled water and soft drink manufactures, including Danone, Coca Cola Co. and Pepsico, have also pledged to reduce water use through better maintenance, water-reduction technologies and water reuse.

Industry officials attending the Brussels conference, Solutions for Sustainable Water Use, say conservation is a practical matter because their manufacturing depends on water as an ingredient and for industrial uses such as heating and cleaning. More efficient resource use is also good business – it cuts operating costs. The conservation moves also help fulfil their commitments through industry and intergovernmental partnerships like the United Nations’ Global Compact on the environment, human rights and anti-corruption initiatives.

But the efforts alone are not likely to reverse a worsening drain on freshwater supplies around the globe.

European Commission officials warn of widespread water shortages as the global population hits 9 billion by 2050, as expected, and if conservation measures are not taken. “We will need the resources of two-and-a-half planet earths,” Karl Falkenberg, director-general of the commission’s environment office, told the water conference.

“The way in which we are going about our business, the way we as consumers are conducting our lives is not going to be sustainable in the next 40 years,” he said. “We should all think about this, particularly here in Europe, where we flush out toilets with drinking-quality water.”

Farmers are the biggest water consumers in many countries, according to the United Nations. Kevin Shepherd, an engineer at Wells and Young’s in Bedford, UK, says the family-owned brewing company is working with its grain suppliers to improve irrigation practices.

Finding the right balance between human needs and nature will require broad social involvement – private as well as public – according to those attending the water conference.

“We need to strengthen relationships between companies, government and others to protect water supplies,” said Mario Lubetkin, director-general of the Inter Press Service, the global news agency. Lubetkin urged more corporate social responsibility and stewardship of water resources, noting that industrial involvement is “still relatively rare.”

Globally, more than 700 million people live in areas where there is water scarcity, and that figure is expected to grow to 3 billion by 2035, according to the World Bank. The United Nations estimates that some 900 million people lack safe drinking water, despite a decade-long push by donors to improve water access in impoverished nations. In Asia, the shortfall between water supplies and demand is expected to be 40 percent within 20 years.

The UN’s Human Development Report, released in November last year, says some 1.75 billion people – or 25 percent of humans – experience “multidimensional poverty” including water deprivation or living without adequate sanitation.

Meanwhile, researchers say Pakistan, a nation still struggling to recover from epochal flooding in 2010, faces widespread freshwater shortages within two decades. Anti-government protests in Egypt, Jordan and other Middle Eastern nations were sparked in part by public frustration over unequal distribution of natural resources between the ruling elites and masses.

Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians among the most water-deprived people in the world, according to Maarten A. Siebel, associate professor at the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands. The per capita water consumption among Palestinians in the West Bank is 50 cubic metres per year, one-sixth of the rate in Israel, Siebel said in an interview.

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