Nestlé chair Peter Brabeck is seeking a solution to the old conundrum that you can take a horse to water but you cannot force it to drink.
The 68-year-old Austrian believes water scarcity is perhaps the biggest threat facing humanity and while governments and businesses are finally waking up to this, precious little action is being taken.
Brabeck says he became a convert to the cause of water stewardship a few years ago when he was planning the food and drink giant’s 140th anniversary and wondered what the challenges might prevent it from celebrating another 140 years in business.
The "surprising" answer led him to step back from his role as chief executive to devote more time to his water crusade, and taking a lead in the development of the Water Resources Group (WRG), which is seeking to bring governments, business and civil society together to find solutions.
Progress is nowhere near fast enough, given that global demand is expected to outstrip supply by up to 30% within the next 17 years, but Brabeck believes the most effective way to encourage the proverbial horse to drink is if it sees another quenching its thirst.
The WRG has created successful test projects in countries such as Jordan and South Africa and as a result, several other countries are queuing up to form partnerships, including Tanzania and Ethiopia.
Sitting in Davos, after the WRG’s annual meeting, Brabeck says: "I’ve been coming up here [World Economic Forum] for 15 years and nobody was talking about water. They were talking about CO2, they were talking about climate change; that we’re going to roast and burn.
"We’re talking about running out of oil, well it happens that we have 120 years of proven oil reserves, we have 240 years of proven gas reserves, we have 550 years of proven coal reserves, we have thousands of years of proven Uranium reserves and we are running out of water today."
Brabeck says that while water is the paramount issue, it also needs to be seen in relationship to the two other key challenges humanity is facing, namely food and energy security.
He points, for example, to the fact that we are using more water, rather than less, to produce our food and energy. Unconventional oil is also a disaster waiting to happen, he says, given that it uses up to six litres of water to produce one litre of oil, in contrast to 0.1 litre for conventional oil.
"I mean that’s enormous," he says. "It’s the same with water efficiency on the agricultural side. We are using more and more water because we are using more and more irrigation, partly because we have more drought. This is why, if we cannot fix the water issue, we will not be able to give food or energy security. That’s where the nexus is established.
"You can talk today to the energy sector and they realise now water is becoming the most critical element. That’s a big step. You wouldn’t have had that five years ago."
Brabeck is convinced we need to go back to a holistic view of the world, because our tendency to specialise has meant we have lost sight of the big picture.
"If you become more and more and more specialised in a world that is more and more interconnected, you are losing your impact and your credibility to find solutions," he says. "It’s not only water. With most other problems, it’s a nexus issue. Even the Millenium Development Goals were very specialised and therefore they were also missing out on the nexus."
A difficult sell?
Brabeck talks about credibility but knows that Nestlé still attracts distrust from the infamous 1970s baby milk scandal and its own more recent approach to water. Activists accuse Nestlé, the leading seller of bottled water – which accounted for nearly 8% of its total 2011 sales of 83.6bn Swiss francs (£58bn) – of being more interested in lining its own pockets through a back-door privatisation of countries’ water supplies, than in saving the planet.
Last year, a documentary film, Bottled Life, accused Nestlé of extracting ground water for its bottled brands at the expense of local communities, often in poor countries. While the company refused to take part in the film, it did post online a rebuttal of the allegations.
Brabeck, in combative mood, responds that it is important to be less emotional and more analytical about the issues, although he acknowledges that pressure from civil society groups forced Nestlé to recognise that a company cannot create value for its shareholders if it doesn’t create value for society in parallel.
"The fact is they [activists] are talking first of all only about the smallest part of the water usage," he says. "I am the first one to say water is a human right. This human right is the five litres of water we need for our daily hydration and the 25 litres we need for minimum hygiene.
"This amount of water is the primary responsibility of every government to make available to every citizen of this world, but this amount of water accounts for 1.5% of the total water which is for all human usage.
"Where I have an issue is that the 98.5% of the water we are using, which is for everything else, is not a human right and because we treat it as one, we are using it in an irresponsible manner, although it is the most precious resource we have. Why? Because we don’t want to give any value to this water. And we know very well that if something doesn’t have a value, it’s human behaviour that we use it in an irresponsible manner.
"If you look back to when I was born, there were 2.7 billion people and we were not even using 40% of the renewable water, but by seven billion we are already over-using it and if we are going to be up to 10 billion [people], we have to change our relationship with this resource."
The role of business, governments and NGOs
If the challenge of water scarcity is to be met, Brabeck says all players in society need to become more effective. Businesses that recognise the scale of the problem have to put pressure on others to act and the thousands of active NGOs need to start working together to create change, rather than each pushing their own particular agendas.
Brabeck warns businesses not to hide behind a philanthropic agenda but to build water stewardship into the heart of their business strategies. He also says that cross-sector partnerships need to be professionalised and institutionalised so that they do not fall apart as passionate individuals move on.
"One always needs to come back to the principles, as these have to become part of the culture of an institution," he says. "That is something which we are being reproached for – for example, at Nestlé. They say we are like a sect because we have a very strong culture, but that allows me to run Nestlé, for example, in a completely decentralised manner."
Brabeck believes in action, rather than just talking, which is expressed through his love for climbing, skiing, flying, Formula One and motorcycling, and insists the only sign of success will be projects on the ground, not the creation of another thinktank or conference.
While the journey ahead is long and uncertain, Brabeck does see signals that change is starting: "I’m not the prophet who thinks that tomorrow everybody is convinced and will be on the bandwagon," he says. "But what I can see is that when five years ago I started to talk about the water issue and we were 10 people in the room, today water is being recognised as the number two societal risk of this world. That’s quite a good step and I am gladdened by the amount of companies and colleagues of mine who are getting involved. But, above all, it is the politicians who are starting to say ‘we have to do something about it’."
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