Achim Drewes (left) and Benjamin Adrion during the Evonik debate at the headquarters of Nestlé Germany in Frankfurt

A Commodity or a Human Right?

Who owns water? Benjamin Adrion from Viva con Agua and Achim Drewes from Nestlé discuss one of today’s most important issues

Both of you sell water. Mr. Adrion, you sell water in order to finance the digging of wells and other measures. Mr. Drewes, for Nestlé water is a product that accounts for about seven percent of its total sales. Do the two of you nonetheless have anything in common?

Drewes: Our aim as a company is to jointly generate added value. That applies to the communities located near our locations and our supply chains and to the relationship we want to have with consumers. Even though one could say that building wells and toilets in remote villages isn’t one of the essential tasks of a food manufacturer, we’ve been doing it for years as part of our location and supply chain programs for years wherever it’s necessary. So it’s quite possible, Mr. Adrion, that in some areas your activities and ours are having the same results.

Adrion: I completely disagree with you. I won’t let you co-opt me that quickly. It’s misleading to claim that the basic objectives of Nestlé and Viva con Agua are similar. All of our actions are motivated by the desire to provide everyone with access to clean drinking water and basic sanitary facilities. The difference between our two organizations is that we are using our money to realize our vision of “water for all.” Our activities focus on non-governmental organizations that promote water projects all over the world. We are supported by a huge network of volunteers who work with enthusiasm to help us achieve our vision. Like Nestlé, we also sell a brand of mineral water. However, we don’t want to extract water in regions where it is scarce. That’s another one of the differences between us.

Drewes: That’s not quite true. Nestlé doesn’t bottle water from areas where it is scarce or where there is drought. It’s true that we also operate in countries that suffer from water scarcity to some extent or where access to the public water supply is insufficient. However, our facilities are located in areas where sufficient water is available over the long term. Moreover, we make sure that these facilities don’t have any negative effects. We obviously won’t build an expensive bottling plant in a drought area or in a location where the plant would have to close down after five years because of a drop in the groundwater level.

Achim Drewes and Benjamin Adrion together with Evonik editors Christof Endruweit (right) and Marcus Müntefering

Mr. Adrion, you bottle water exclusively in Germany. Could you also imagine bottling water in the countries in which you are active?

Adrion: It’s relevant to ask us whether we should supplement our activities in countries such as Ethiopia, Nepal, and Uganda with projects such as bottling a “socially beneficial mineral water.” After all, we are more than just an NGO that raises money to build local wells. We are creating an international community of students, musicians, and artists who identify themselves with our vision and our activities and say that they are also part of Viva con Agua. Nonetheless, we wouldn’t bottle water in countries such as Ethiopia. One reason for that is the water scarcity in these regions. Another reason is that we are clearly saying that there will never be any Viva con Agua plastic bottles in countries that don’t have an effective recycling system. Plastic bottles cause a gigantic garbage problem, and we don’t want to be part of it. On principle, we don’t want to compete with the basic water supply system of the people in arid regions. And of course the problem isn’t just the bottling of water. An even more serious concern is the agricultural sector, which consumes most of the water. This is a sector in which Nestlé, for example, has been active for the past 150 years. During that time, global water consumption has increased dramatically, and today we have reached the limits of our planet’s capacity.

Drewes: This is a fascinating topic. Who is responsible for regulating the use of water? Who is creating the framework? What are the resulting requirements? If you want to earn money with water—and that’s what Nestlé wants to continue doing—you have to fulfill certain requirements so that you have social permission to do your work. In other words, we have to not only address environmental issues but also make sure that water is available as a human right at all of our locations. If this is not the case, companies should help to reduce this gap, for instance by initiating programs regarding water and sanitary facilities. We’re doing that, but of course we always have to ask ourselves whether we’ve done enough. However, more than anything else we need clear and concise regulations from governments, especially those of developing countries, where there are no water treatment systems and where agriculture and industry are contributing to water pollution. There have to be controls, water usage rights must be clearly organized, and everyone who uses a shared water source has to contribute to the process of finding joint solutions. That includes the agricultural sector, which is the main consumer of water. We are implementing capacity-building measures in many countries, and we’re helping farmers to use water, which is a scarce resource, more efficiently and more responsibly.

Adrion: It’s obvious that a company is not directly boosting its own profitability if it implements such measures or fulfills its moral obligation to enable the people living near its facilities to live under humane conditions with regard to water supplies, for example. Don’t such activities create a potential conflict with the company’s business goals? And couldn’t a company be tempted to abandon such minimum social standards in order to gain bigger profits? In that case, the rationale might be “We will only do the minimum that’s necessary to safeguard our success in this region and to maintain our good public reputation.” I also find it interesting that you say that governments should regulate water use more strictly. Doesn’t that run counter to your company’s strategic interests, which would benefit from the elimination of trade barriers, the reduction of customs duties, and the liberalization of the market?

Drewes: There’s no contradiction here at all. A company such as Nestlé, which is active in many regions, always has an interest in having clear rules that can provide it with orientation. This is the only way we can do reliable planning. For us, it’s crucial not to have any erratic fluctuations or interruptions of our trade relations. In this respect, Nestlé is clearly in favor of free trade.

Adrion: I detect an interesting discrepancy between your company’s efforts to influence economic policies, on the one hand, and your call for government regulation, on the other.

Drewes: I don’t think it’s fundamentally wrong for companies to participate in the shaping of economic frameworks. With regard to the regulation of water consumption, all of the users within a water catchment area need to have clear rules concerning how much water they are allowed to extract under what kinds of environmental restrictions. This is necessary in order to make sure that nobody uses more than they are allowed to or more than is sustainable.

»All of our actions are motivated by the desire to provide everyone with access to clean drinking water.«

Benjamin Adrion, Viva con Agua

A cocoa village in Côte d’Ivoire: One of the toilets that have been set up by Nestlé and the International Red Cross

A well in Nepal, where Viva con Agua started a project in 2014. The focus is on schoolchildren

»If you want to earn money with water, you have to fulfill certain requirements so that you have social permission to do your work«

Achim Drewes, Nestlé

Reliable planning and definite rules—are these concepts important for your international activities as well, Mr. Adrion?

Adrion: We operate very much at the level of civil society, and we have comparatively little contact with governments or with local public institutions. The systemic problem that I see with regard to global regulations is that industries, including transnational food companies, exert their influence on these regulations through processes that are not transparent and that serve the interests of the industrialized nations. There is a danger that companies will always be a step ahead of governments and that they will exploit the existing gaps for their own benefit and to the detriment of the local population. This danger is especially great in Africa, where in many cases the competition laws and the local administrations are less developed than they are in Europe.

Drewes: I would like to differentiate that a bit. Civil society has very high expectations about the extent to which companies can help to solve global problems. I think that companies such as Nestlé definitely have the means at their disposal to make global challenges smaller and that it is our duty to make a visible and transparent contribution to the way specific issues are addressed. Moreover, when we develop a new plant site we adhere to high environmental standards.

Adrion: By that you mean Nestlé’s own standards…

Drewes: Yes. We regard them as minimum standards that are just as binding as legal requirements. More specifically, this means that we don’t release untreated water into the environment, for example. We build our own sewage treatment facilities, if necessary. Doing so can also have a positive impact on the surrounding region.

Achim Drewes

is the Head of Public Affairs at Nestlé Germany. Among other things, he is responsible for communications with governments, NGOs, and associations. Nestlé is the world’s largest food manufacturer. Its headquarters are in Vevey (Switzerland). In 2016 the company’s water business accounted for 7.4 percent of its total sales of €82.4 billion. Nestlé’s best-known water brands include S. Pellegrino and Vittel

Benjamin Adrion

a former soccer pro, founded Viva con Agua de Sankt Pauli in 2006. The organization’s vision is a world where everyone has access to clean water and basic sanitary facilities. To realize this vision, it collects donations in creative ways. For example, it has been bottling and selling a “socially beneficial mineral water” since 2010. Viva con Agua has so far helped two million people worldwide through its water projects

How do you assess such measures, Mr. Adrion? What do you think should be done?

Adrion: The creation of a sustainable world is the most important task that future generations will have to accomplish. And there’s still a great deal to be done. We are living beyond our means when it comes to the consumption of our resources, and that especially applies to water. If things continue the way they are going now, we won’t be able to avoid disaster for very long. Today we would already need the natural resources of four planets in order to meet our current demands. Do people really believe that increased growth is still the answer?

Drewes: We agree on one point. We are in a situation where consumption and agricultural production patterns are not sustainable. Although the Sustainable Development Goals are by no means perfect, they provide us with a framework that actually should help to get industry, civil society, and, last but not least, governments— which continue to have the most responsibility for development policies—to commit themselves to shared goals.

Adrion: I’m astonished to see the way you are now transferring the responsibility to governments. It would be wonderful if a company like Nestlé were to focus on these shared goals simply on its own initiative. In the final analysis, are you saying that you’re merely selling whatever customers want?

Drewes: No. Governments are clearly responsible for setting the goals of development policies, but everyone else, including industry, has to contribute to the achievement of these goals. The Sustainable Development Goals provide us with a shared set of objectives that is also widely accepted by the business community— which you are demonizing here. And this is an opportunity to achieve something together.

Adrion: I’m not demonizing the business community. I don’t want to make sweeping statements, but I do want to ask some questions. How did we get ourselves into this situation? And what do we have to do in order to improve this process in some way? How can we structure our economy in such a way that it becomes “fit for our grandchildren,” as Richard David Precht has put it? In this regard, I have my doubts whether global companies, which are ultimately controlled by anonymous shareholders, are sufficiently able to fully take the consequences of their actions into account. At the end of the day, they give their highest priority to their annual business results.

Mr. Drewes, in 2010 the United Nations recognized that water is a human right. The number of people who have access to clean water has increased significantly since then. Would you call that a success?

Drewes: Yes, even though it’s probably more the result of development processes than of the formal recognition that water is a human right. But it was a logical step to give the human right to water a special status, because it increases public awareness of this issue. However, this measure does not impose any specific obligations on the various players. We are trying to break down these obligations into specifics for our own activities. We do this by implementing community- based programs near our facilities or by having plants that are located in regions suffering from water stress certified according to the new standard of the Alliance for Water Stewardship.

Adrion: On the one hand, it’s a fact that the number of people who do not have access to clean water has been cut in half over the past ten or 15 years. But on the other hand, nobody knows how the overall climatic conditions will develop and what consequences these developments will have. Climate change is already having massive effects on the availability of water all over the world. We are already reaching the limits of our planet’s total carrying capacity, especially with regard to the water that is being used by agriculture and industry. “Virtual water”—in other words, the water that is consumed in the process of manufacturing products—plays an important role in this respect. We are currently not managing to use water sustainably within the overall framework of our consumption. In the future, this can definitely cause the number of people who have access to clean drinking water to decline once again, and it can also have many other negative consequences.

Mr. Drewes, does the Nestlé company, which is often subject to criticism as the main representative of its industry, believe that it has a special responsibility in this regard?

Drewes: Because Nestlé is the world’s largest food manufacturer, it’s always automatically the first target. As a result, we have to be able to deal with criticism. We have to find the right answers and make corrections whenever we do something that hasn’t turned out too well. In addition, we have to engage in a dialogue and partnership with civil society whenever there are difficulties. We’ve become pretty good at that by now.

Adrion: This is a step in the right direction, but it can only be a start. Major course corrections will be needed in order to create a sustainable world, and I fear that the pace of this change is not fast enough. For major companies, the primary concerns are ultimately to safeguard their supply chains, make profits, and generate further growth. And they can’t do that without gigantic amounts of resources. The responsibility for changing the situation is borne to a very large extent by the companies. We can only succeed if we work together with you. I’m optimistic that more and more companies will move into the forefront of this development. A major reason for that will be the pressure from us, the consumers. Another important reason will be the healthy common sense of the executives of the major corporations.

Hosts: Christof Endruweit und Marcus Müntefering