China’s Yangtze River is the third longest river in the world. It flows for almost 4000 miles, starts in the Tibetan Plateau, meanders eastward towards Shanghai, and eventually flows into the East China Sea. Its basin contains about 40% of the freshwater for China’s 1.3 billion people. Many animals, including the rare Siberian crane, clouded leopard, and of course, the lovable panda, rely on the Yangtze. With over 700 tributaries flowing into this massive river, the Yangtze’s total square footage is more than triple the size of California.
Rapid population growth and industrialization have taken their toll on the Yangtze. The natural forest cover has decreased by two-thirds over the past 50 years, and resulted in the slippage of over 680 million tons of mud into the river. Meanwhile, over 500 dams (including the massive Three Gorges) have jolted the Yangtze’s natural course and severed lakes from the river. Add increased contamination, and you have a continuous environmental and potentially economic disaster in the making.
Now corporations who have established a foothold in the world’s most populous country realize that it is in their best long-term interest to stem the slow destruction of the Yangtze, which is critical for the survival for scores of millions of Chinese who depend on the river for survival. One such company is Coca-Cola, which has entered into a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to improve the water quality in the western stretches of the Yangtze.
Coca-Cola’s executive team in China has already committed itself to improved sustainability and corporate social responsibility initiatives. But for the company to expand its business—sales increased in China almost 20% last year while falling 1% in the US—Coca-Cola must address water security. To a company with a product line composed almost entirely of water, tackling water issues is smart business, or else its operations will not be sustained.
The Coca-Cola/WWF partnership runs on three fronts. First, together they lead watershed management projects in two crucial upper Yangtze tributaries. For example, one project works with farmers to encourage them to prevent the runoff of pig waste into water, diverting the material into bio-gas instead.
Bottling plants in the Yangtze basin also adopted best practices for water usage, to the point at which they can claim “water neutrality.” Coca-Cola is improving water recycling at the company’s factories, and is encouraging the same throughout its supply chain. Both Coke and WWF staff also work with Chinese sugar farmers to streamline their production and reduce water use.
The partnership faces its challenges. Chinese government officials tend to shun non-profits, choosing to micro-manage such work through locally-approved NGOs. WWF has come under fire from other advocacy groups because of its cooperation with corporations that they view as the central part of the problem.
Perhaps some would prefer that the Chinese simply drink tea out of large jars, as my memory serves when I first visited China in 1996. But with growing affluence comes changing consumer tastes. Coca-Cola realizes that it cannot survive without clean sources of water. And by working with an organization like the WWF that has the capacity and know-how, together they may halt, or even reverse, the damage that has clobbered the Yangtze since the end of World War II. Another 5 of the world’s 10 most polluted rivers are also on this partnership’s target list—that cannot be bad thing.