Fighting to save Europe's endangered rivers
Did you know that 60 percent of Europe's rivers are not healthy? Or that the rivers and freshwater wetlands of the world have lost 83 percent of their biodiversity since the 1970s? As we celebrate World Rivers Day, we talk to Eva Hernández, Coordinator of WWF's Living European Rivers Initiative and Therese Noorlander, Sustainability Director Europe for Coca-Cola, about the importance of protecting Europe's endangered rivers.
How big is the problem with endangered river systems and fresh water in Europe?
Eva: We know that 60 percent of the rivers in Europe are not healthy. Some might say, "so 40 percent are ok, that's not that bad," but what if 60 percent of your body was damaged, or 60 percent of your home destroyed? A clear sign of the damage done to rivers and wetlands of the world is that they have lost 83 percent of their biodiversity since the 1970s. The health of these freshwater habitats affects our water, food, energy and our capacity to adapt to climate change—it's a serious topic. The good news is we know how to improve things. We need to multiply our efforts, reach more people and have more companies, authorities and citizens committed to the recovery of rivers and nature in general. Ultimately, this is about taking care of our home.
Therese: I'm still amazed by the figure that only 3 percent of the world's water is freshwater. That's the water we use to drink, grow crops and sustain so much of our lives. And yet in Europe, as Eva said, 60 percent of the rivers—the source of so much freshwater—are not. You may ask 'why does it matter to Coke?' Well, water is our key ingredient. It sustains our business and the communities we serve. Without water, everything stops. How could we not care?
Some might think Coca-Cola and WWF are unusual partners. What's the secret of your collaboration?
Eva: The secret is that our collaboration goes beyond the funding: it is about a strategic, long term vision to make a real difference together for the benefit of people, nature and business. What WWF wants is to change how the world works. We want to change the status quo. If we are able to influence a business like Coca-Cola to see the benefit of working to improve the health of rivers and restore freshwater wetlands, then together we can influence other companies too. This is especially important with Coca-Cola, as it is regarded as a reference point on so many issues, so why not on water stewardship? If they champion water stewardship, others will follow.
Therese: Water is needed to grow our agricultural ingredients. It is used in manufacturing and essential in our products. And it is a shared resource: adequate, clean freshwater is vital to our consumers and the communities they live in. We can't achieve our ambitious water targets on our own, so we need to team up with expert partners. WWF is a perfect match because they combine expert knowledge with extensive local networks, rolling up their sleeves to get things done in the community. We work with organizations like WWF to help us deliver our targets, but we also want them to teach us and help us build lasting, sustainable programs that can help make a big difference.
How has your work together benefited both partners?
Eva: It has changed a lot over the years. In that time, we have helped Coca-Cola evolve its approach to water stewardship. When we started the focus was solely on Coca-Cola returning the water it uses in its products to nature. Then our collaboration grew into including the supply chain, from the water in the bottle to the water used to make the ingredients. Now Coca-Cola has progressed to the concept of 'natural capital,' measuring the wider impact of its actions on nature. It is all an ongoing process, we see it trying to include this holistic approach into its activities. That's the difference between just giving money and really involving sustainability in your business.
Therese: Let me give you an example. The first time I visited one of our water replenishment projects, in Croatia, everything around me looked beautiful. But the WWF team said no, the river needed restoring. I had no idea why, so I asked them to explain it to me like I am a six-year-old. Make it simple. When it comes to fresh water and the interlink with biodiversity and climate change, it is super important we understand. We need experts like WWF to spell it out. I think in a small way we have helped WWF change the way they communicate and explain the work they do and the significance of it, engaging more people by making their message more accessible.
Eva: Yes, this is true. Coca-Cola is a loudspeaker for us because of its excellence in marketing, it knows what people want and can help us reach more than we can alone. Coca-Cola can also help us simplify and tailor our message for maximum impact. I think it's a nice symbiosis and World Rivers Day is a perfect opportunity to pump up the volume.
Are you achieving the goals you hoped for?
Therese: Our river projects with WWF have played a big role in helping us achieve our water replenishment targets—we have returned huge volumes of freshwater to nature. But the more important thing for me is that we have brought local communities with us—on the whole, people support the changes and understand why they are needed. Communities can see and feel the benefit and that's what matters.
Eva: Yes, as well as the volume of water we have recovered or the rivers and wetlands we have restored, a lot of the progress we have achieved together has been about helping people work in a different way, for example by improving farming or land use practices. People are resistant to change so it's often hard to open their minds to innovation. And that also goes for local companies and municipalities. For all our projects with Coca-Cola, the impact has been similar in terms of changing perspectives and encouraging people to be more open to new ideas. This is what we want to multiply across Europe and the world.
Looking ahead, do you think the emphasis of your work might change?
Eva: The focus of our partnership is continuously evolving. Climate change adaptation is now logically gaining relevance as the world is waking up to the need to start adapting to the impacts of a warming world. But the most important thing is to work at two speeds: we need to continue innovating and at the same time we have to successfully scale up the ideas that work. If we want to reverse biodiversity loss, and tackle low water quality and water scarcity in European rivers, we need to be more ambitious and achieve results on a bigger scale. There's much work to do, for companies, administrations, and also for NGOs.
Therese: Coca-Cola and WWF are still doing great projects, but I think we should absolutely try and engage more people, companies and stakeholders. We have all the proof points in terms of how you can restore freshwater and who can benefit from it. It's not rocket science! But to do this on a bigger scale we need more players to get involved. As a company, we have the power to engage our consumers, employees, customers, trade associations, and even peer companies. We can stand proud of what we have done, strive to do more and challenge others to follow.
Do you face a challenge to keep water top of mind, among other environmental issues?
Eva: We definitely need to give freshwater a push. We hear a lot about climate change, but we need to remind people that healthy rivers and freshwater ecosystems are essential to helping us adapt to climate change. They move the water that feeds our fields and satisfies our thirst, they nurture floodplains and coasts and they can act as a buffer in times of extreme droughts and floods. Rivers are the pumping hearts of our landscapes, they make water, energy, nutrients and sediments move and contribute to our quality of life in countless ways. It's urgent that we never forget this and work hard to bring up the issue of water in the media and political agenda—it's there, but not as high as it should be. Companies like Coca-Cola can help keep it top of mind and engage the players who together can make a bigger difference.