World Water Week: Why water access is just as important as water efficiency

Image: Tom Saater/WaterAid

This is the second part of a two-part feature for World Water Week. The first part covers the evolution of corporate water stewardship strategies. Access it here.

The theme for this year’s World Water Week is ‘Seeing the Unseen: The Value of Water’. Debates around quantifying the value of natural resources such as water have been raging for years – what metrics should be used? Is assigning a monetary value productive or reductive?. But, with this summer’s droughts, it has become crystal clear that, whatever your stance, water is hugely undervalued.

And it is not just water itself that has been undervalued – it is also the infrastructure needed to improve safe, accessible and reliable water access. Unicef estimates that a quarter of the global population has no access to safe drinking water at home, while a third lack the necessary facilities for hand washing with soap and water. Additionally, 3.6 billion people lack safely managed sanitation services, most of them living in rural areas in the Global South. In 48 countries, less than half of people can access these services.

Sitting down to discuss water access and distribution with edie for World Water Week is the PepsiCo Foundation’s vice-president C.D. Glin. He says: “If water is life – a phrase we’ve all heard – then sanitation is dignity. This is why working on water distribution, as well as conservation, is so important.”

The PepsiCo Foundation is one of the world’s largest corporate philanthropic foundations and states that its purpose is to “invest in the essential elements of a sustainable food system with a mission to support thriving communities”. Glin explains that the Foundation has been allocating resource to solve three key food system challenges for the past 15+ years, namely access to nutritious food, economic opportunity and safe water. Overall, it is aiming to provide safe water access to 100 million people by 2030, with 55 million reached so far.

“The impacts of water access and water stress carry over,” Glin notes, highlighting the importance of an intersectional viewpoint.

Regarding the connection between economic opportunities and safe water, it’s clear that people without access to good water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) will likely get sick more severely and more often and be less productive at work. They may also be unable to work or to access education, as they spend so much time travelling to access water. This is a burden that falls disproportionately on women and children, who are estimated to collectively spend 200 million hours on collection each day. For them, Glin says, water is livelihood as well as life itself.

WaterAid, an NGO partner of the PepsiCo Foundation, recently published what it believes is one of the first studies to quantify the business benefits of investing in WASH. It concluded that investment in WASH for staff at leather tanneries and apparel factories in Bangladesh could see a return on investment of almost $7 for every $1 invested in WASH access over a ten-year period. In India, the rate was $2 for every $1 invested.

Other businesses working with WaterAid through their charitable foundations include Heineken, John Lewis Partnership and H&M.

Global and local

India is one of the main focus locations for WaterAid’s work with the Foundation. In partnership, the two organisations have installed water supplies to 40 rural villages in the country, mainly in the south west. Collectively, these villages are home to some 200,000 people.

Regions like these are some of the most affected by water access and are often prone to water stress. But, as Glin highlights, there are places in the Global North, near FMCG manufacturing sites like PepsiCo’s, experiencing similar issues. The UN estimates that around 12% of the US population does not have access to sanitation, with the problem most pronounced on lands formerly designated as reservations for Native Americans.

With this in mind, the Foundation also has partnerships with other international NGOs, including Care, The Nature Conservancy and

However, in various geographies, PepsiCo and its Foundation also have a number of partnerships with smaller, localised NGOs, as well as local authorities and citizens’ groups. One example is its work with the Water Replenishment District of California Glin explains: “Talking to the WaterAids of the world is important, but local organisations really own these issues on a daily basis and are coming up with fitting solutions.

“It can’t be about PepsiCo doing it for ourselves, or doing it how we think it should be done. Companies really should be listening to and learning from the community when bringing their presence to bear.”

There are considerable risks if companies don’t take this approach. They may lose – or fail to gain in the first instance – of communities, affecting their reputation. They may fail to identify the potential of each participant in a collaboration, leading to projects which ultimately fail. For these reasons, the Foundation advocates for community-owned water distribution and purification infrastructure.

Towards net-positive

Any corporate would be accused of hypocrisy if its charitable foundation was investing heavily in water access but not taking action to conserve water in its supply chain and areas of operation.

As outlined in the first part of this piece, there is a growing need for businesses to set context-specific and science-based targets on water, and to deliver strategies collaboratively. There is also a growing movement, for water and beyond, towards ‘net-positivity’ – doing more good to the environment than harm across operations and the value chain.

PepsiCo joined the likes of Ikea and Starbucks in autumn last year by pledging to become a net-positive business. The overarching vision for a “strategic end-to-end transformation” of the business is supported by a target for the business to replenish more water than it uses by 2030. Glin emphasises that professionals at the Foundation, at the c-suite level, within the sustainability team, within procurement, and leading at manufacturing sites, have all been briefed on the roles they must play to deliver this ambition.

As representatives from Mars and Kimberly-Clark told edie in the first half of this feature, Glin tells edie that improving water efficiency is the priority step for achieving this goal. It’s easier to counterbalance your impact if your impact is smaller in the first instance.

There is a specific goal for PepsiCo to improve operational water-use efficiency by 25% in high-risk areas by 2025, against a 2019 baseline. An 18% reduction has already been achieved.

Some sites have gone above and beyond this. At the company’s snack factory in Mexico City, no new fresh water was used for a 90-day period earlier this year. “This took innovation, ingenuity, intentionality and real commitment,” Glin says, with investment in on-site interventions such as rainwater harvesting, condensation and water recovery systems. The plant also hosts a water purification system that enables it to take in used water from two other local factories, and an ultra-efficient Splash Cone – a device used to sprinkle water on potatoes during the slicing process, first invented in Leicester.

Mexico City is famed for its water stress and often described as a sinking city. By 2050, natural water availability for the city could fall by up to 17% on 2020 levels, according to the Global Center on Adaptation. Climate change, population growth, industrialisation and ageing infrastructure all contribute to the issue.

Learnings from the Vallejo plant, Glin says, will be applied to other plants in water-stressed regions. As of 2021, PepsiCo owned 99 manufacturing locations it classed as having high water risk, accounting for around one-third of its global portfolio.

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