My 15 years of personal commitment to better water management

By Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

28 September 2016 See comments (4)

commitment to better water management

As I am getting closer to the end of my professional career (I will hand over the chairmanship of Nestlé to my successor in spring 2017), this will be my last post. Let me take this opportunity to look back to some of the stages of my advocacy and engagement for water – particularly water availability to grow food, for the people and their prosperity.

At the beginning of the 21st century, it became clear that the world of water and the world around water was undergoing quicker and more profound change than ever. At a Nestlé executive board strategy retreat in Glion, Switzerland, on 5 November 2002, a discussion on the terms of reference for a new and broader corporate approach to water was initiated. Subsequently, I defined water as the biggest long-term challenge for the existence of the company and, notwithstanding some differing views internally, we decided to take a pro-active and publicly much more visible role on water issues around the world and to ultimately get to a coherent global strategy for Nestlé to address the megatrends in the area of water.

In January 2005, at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Nestlé invited a group of top experts, diverse enough to fully represent the complexity of the water issue (including also soft factors, such as spirituality, emotions, etc.), to further develop the factual base for our future strategy. It was also in January 2005 that, on behalf of the company, I publicly subscribed to the concept of water as a human right.

Importantly, along with the strong and welcome support provided by Professor Klaus Schwab, this January 2005 Nestlé event in Davos put water firmly on the agenda of the World Economic Forum as a priority theme.

From there followed several phases of reflection and the identification of forward-looking steps to develop and build our position and take action to meet the water challenge:

  • 2007: Nestlé joined the UN Global Compact CEO Water Mandate, designed to assist companies in the development, implementation, and disclosure of corporate water stewardship practices and policies.
  • 2008: Water became one of the three pillars of Nestlé Creating Shared Value (CSV). We believe we can make an important contribution to society, by going a step beyond corporate social responsibility to create value through our core business both for our shareholders and society. We prioritise the areas of nutrition, water and rural development to create shared value; this requires long term thinking.Initially, the third pillar was environment; but it became increasingly clear to us that water challenges go beyond environmental problems. Already before, water efficiency moved up in the list of priorities of our operational sustainability and risk reduction. As a result, within ten years, freshwater withdrawals by the company were reduced from 4.5 litres per USD of sales to less than 1.5 litres.
  • 2008: a small group of manufacturers together with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank Group and McKinsey set up the 2030 Water Resources Group (WRG) as an ad-hoc platform. In November 2009, the WRG published Charting Our Water Future, which put watersheds at the centre of the analysis and proposed tools to stimulate cost-effective and relevant action by policymakers and stakeholders. (Based on the conclusions of the report, Nestlé and other WRG members expressed reservations on the concept of water neutrality for specific actors and the use of ‘water footprints’ as effective policy drivers and key policy performance indicators.)
  • January 2010: 2030 WRG was formalised, initially within the World Economic Forum. Since 2012, WRG has been hosted by the International Finance Corporation (IFC); I chair its Governing Council.
  • In September 2011, I was invited to the Stockholm International Water Week to be honoured with the Stockholm Industry Water Award for Nestlé.

Stockholm Industry Water Award for Nestlé

  • 2012 first Creating Shared Value report (as part of the 2011 Nestlé Annual Report) with a focus on water – Meeting the Global Water Challenge (pdf, 3Mb). This further refined the systematic measurement of water use and disposal by the company.
  • In July 2012, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that 27 members of a High-level Panel would advise on the global development framework beyond 2015, the target date for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Two leading industrialists were invited by the UN Secretary General to join this important group, Ms Betty Maina, Chief Executive of Kenya’s Association of Manufacturers, and Mr Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever. In an effort to reach out to the wider business community, Paul Polman asked me to act as the water ambassador and to help assemble a broader, more coherent submission from global business on how to make water part of the main the goals. One of the main outcomes was including a specific target devoted to bringing freshwater withdrawals back into line with sustainable supply.
  • August 2012: launch of this blog,, meant to stimulate a broader discussion on water issues, a discussion based on facts rather than perceptions and ideologies. In its four years existence, this blog presented 18 guest contributions – thanks again to its authors – as well as more than 100 of my own posts. My idea when starting this platform, i.e., to stimulate discussion, worked; there is a very rich comment section for individual posts in my blog with a total of more than 700 entries (including my responses). Thanks to all of you who commented, also those who disagreed with me. You made running my blog worthwhile.
  • 2014-15 I participated in the work of the high-level panel on Financing Infrastructure for a Water-Secure World. This is just one more example of my active involvement in broad public policy discussions on water. Other examples concern my advocacy against mandates and subsidies for biofuels (from a water perspective) in co-operation with several NGOs, my participation in the work of the Global Green Growth Forum and the InterAction Council, or my recent participation in the Singapore International Water Week.
  • 2015, after the WEF Africa Summit in Cape Town in June, I joined in campaigning for the G77 Urban Water Alliance proposed by the South African government.

My last post only sketches out a few stations along the main axes of my involvement in the water issue – a long journey that brought progress, but we are still far from a solution to what I consider to be the main challenge, namely bringing freshwater withdrawals back into line with natural renewal – watershed by watershed. I will stay interested and still welcome your comments and questions here on my blog.

  1. Glen Nasmith - Director @ Healthlands New Zealand

    06 Nov 2016 - 20:17 (GMT)

    Hi Peter,

    Now that all is said and done, I would just like to say well done.

    Your visionary initiatives, will have a positive influence, on the

    better management and value of water forever.

  2. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe - Nestlé Chairman @ Nestlé

    12 Dec 2016 - 13:59 (GMT)

    Dear Glen,

    Many thanks for your kind words. Water needs help from everybody and I greatly appreciate your engagement.

    With best regards,

  3. Erik Driessen - Head of Industrial Water @ Isle

    08 Nov 2016 - 11:41 (GMT)

    Dear Peter,

    Thanks for sharing this blog. It is really good to see that water is running through your veins and that water is more and more being taken seriously by multinationals like yours.

    As you probably know there are thousands of start-ups and other young businesses working on technical and innovative solutions to help industries becoming more water efficient, reduce the water footprint and treat wastewater.
    Your water operations specialists are invited to join an exclusive industrial TAG meeting where a selection of the most promising technologies globally present themselves to leading industries.

    Next iTAG meeting will take place in Europe in February. Can we put Nestlé on the list?

    Good luck with your water mission.

    All the best,

    Erik Driessen
    Head of industrial water at Isle

  4. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe - Nestlé Chairman @ Nestlé

    12 Dec 2016 - 13:50 (GMT)

    Dear Erik,

    Many thanks for your message. I will pass your kind invitation on to my colleagues at Nestlé.

    With best regards,

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