Water is a human right, and we all need to step up our game to protect it

4 min read
Gebre used to rely on an irrigation scheme built on the Bilate river in Ethiopia, but recently so many people people have been using the irrigation scheme, he isn't getting water to his farm. Photo credit: WaterAid/Genaye Eshetu

Did you know it takes an estimated 50 litres of water to produce one glass of beer? That fact might make your refreshing Friday pint a little harder to swallow, but drinks brand giant Diageo are working hard to reduce that number.

Chances are that you’ve encountered Diageo without even realising it – if you’ve enjoyed a festive Baileys at Christmas, gulped a pint of Guinness at the rugby or kicked back with a Tanqueray gin and tonic in the sun. As a business that relies heavily on water for the production of their products, Diageo are determined to manage the water they use responsibly, whilst also working in partnership with WaterAid, helping to provide clean water and sanitation to communities across Africa.

Michael Alexander, Diageo’s Head of Water, Environment and Agriculture Sustainability tells us why it’s important to protect water.

Businesses like ours, that need a good source of water in their production, can’t just operate in splendid isolation. Generally, it takes over 50 litres of water to produce one glass of beer, so we know we have a responsibility towards the communities and the environment we work in to ensure that we manage water responsibly.

Currently, close to 4 billion people around the world live in water-scarce areas and this number is expected to go up to 5 billion by 2050.

Last year, we published our refreshed Diageo’s Water Blueprint. Our water stewardship strategy outlines our commitment to addressing the global water challenge along our entire value chain; in our sourcing, within our own operations, in the communities where we operate and through local and global advocacy. We are committed to reducing how much water we use in our production plants by 50%, ensuring all waste water is returned to the environment safely, and replenishing water-scarce areas with the equivalent amount used in our final products.

Mohammed pausing by an irrigation scheme on Bilate river in Southern Ethiopia.
Mohammed also used to rely on the irrigation scheme on the Bilate river in Southern Ethiopia, but is no longer able to use the water for his farm because so many others are using it too.
WaterAid/Genaye Eshetu

The availability of water is crucial for Diageo from an economic point of view. For example, we have previously had to temporarily suspend operations in Ghana and India due to a lack of available water. Lack of water has also led to longer-term interruptions in countries including Brazil and South Africa. On some occasions, these interruptions have been caused by infrastructure and economic scarcity. But mostly these have been about a lack of rainfall. We know this threat is increasingly likely with climate change.

The raw materials that go into the production of our beer and spirits make up the majority of our products’ water ‘footprint’, so we are committed to supporting farmers to manage their water.

In places where farmers are more exposed to water scarcity and climate change, we are starting to use crops that are less vulnerable to this, like sorghum and cassava, which are more drought resistant and so need less water. Our support often includes training smallholder farmers on agronomy (the science and technology of producing plants) and mechanisation, including careful management of water.

It’s our responsibility to manage water efficiently across our value chain. Our approach includes helping to manage water sources in the places we operate, and advocating for farmers and their families to have access to clean water and sanitation.

We recognise that for rural farming communities to improve their wellbeing and livelihoods, they need access to safe drinking water and good sanitation. This is fundamental for their families and communities. It also helps their productivity on the farm and therefore, in turn, our raw material supply chain. So there is both a strong moral and business case for advocating for everyone to have access to safe water and sanitation. We have to be part of the step-change that is needed to provide water, sanitation and hygiene services to everyone, everywhere by 2030 (a goal set by the UN as part of the Sustainable Development Goals).

Amina fetching water from a WaterAid installed hand pump close to her home in Pakistan.
Amina used to walk to a canal to fetch water four times a day, with each round trip taking an hour of her time. Now she has a hand pump close to her home.
WaterAid/Sibtain Haider

There is a long way to go. Currently, one in nine people around the world still live without access to clean water close to home.

Supporting the provision of water and sanitation is an integral part of good corporate water stewardship, which is why we work in partnership with WaterAid on global advocacy for water, sanitation and hygiene, and with on-the-ground projects across many communities in sub-Saharan Africa.

In their latest report on water scarcity, WaterAid outlines the part businesses operating in water-scarce areas have to play in ensuring we achieve access to clean water for everyone, everywhere by 2030.

Diageo recognises this important and strong moral and business case for water, sanitation and hygiene management throughout our supply chains. We work to support better local access to clean water and sanitation and use our influence where possible to encourage local government and others to do more to provide access.

We all need to work together, with our peers, competitors and local communities, to address these critical problems, and to drive the sustainable management of water.

We need to act together to enable communities to build their resilience, especially those living in water-scarce areas.