With the growing demand for water putting pressure on a limited resource, beverage majors are tracking their water footprints.
Be it soft drink ones such as Coca-Cola, beer maker SABMiller or packaged water firm Bisleri, they are all measuring the water consumed for bottling every litre of their retailed drinks, trying to cap this and replenish the sources.
SABMiller notes brewing is water-intensive. From the cultivation of barley and hops to the final bottling, it takes a huge amount of water. In India, the company consumed 4.71 litres of water last year to make a litre of beer. It was 5.21 litres the previous year. With various initiatives, it reduced water consumption by about 10 per cent in 2010-11. It sold 438 million litres of beer in India in 2010-11, with 11 breweries, 10 owned and one leased.
"Internally, we focus on lower water consuming technologies such as mash filtration, and flash pasteurisation," the company spokesperson said. It also uses water-efficient bottle washers and recycles water in its breweries.
Keeping such tabs on water consumption is not a social fancy but a necessity for beverage majors in India, say experts. Take Coca-Cola. Its bottling plant in Kerala faced big problems after activists alleged the company was depleting local water supplies. The company has 56 bottling plants in India and uses 2.5 litres of water to make every 1-litre bottle of the carbonated drink.
Coca-Cola India says it practices water stewardship in three areas: reduction of the water usage ratio, recycling the water used in operations and replenishing the water used in manufacturing. To ensure availability of ground water, it had installed about 600 rainwater harvesting structures across India by the end of 2010.
"Exit 2010, we were water-neutral with respect to ground water usage. The Coca-Cola system in India was able to return the water equivalent to the amount of groundwater used for its operations," a spokesperson added.
For Bisleri, water footprinting is not only about reporting one's water consumption; it is about "how much you use and how much you save".
"For every litre of water used for Bisleri, at least 20 litres of rain water is harvested. The company has set itself a target to increase this benchmark to 30 litres," said Ramesh Chauhan, chairman of the Bisleri Group.
To produce one bottle of the drink, it takes a litre of water for Bisleri. "The company has stopped using water for rinsing the bottles in its bottling plants. We use ozone to rinse the bottles. It saves a lot of water," Chauhan added.
The company produces two million bottles of water per day from its 50 bottling plants. Earlier, the ratio was 2:1, which meant for every litre of packaged water, the company was using two litres of water. It has now been able to bring it down to 1:1.
However, social activists doubt whether all these initiatives help the local communities and their source of fresh water. According to Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the Centre for Science and Environment, a non-government body, "All these initiatives are good, provided they do it within the local community where they operate.
Withdrawing water from one point and replenishing water at other another site doesn't make sense. If they destroy the ground water resources of a community and go and do water recharging kilometers away, its not going to help the community."
More, along with reducing their water usage, the beverage companies should be made to pay the full price of ground water they are using. Social initiative or business cause, the important question is whether water footprinting in India will translate into meaningful conservation efforts.