Ulrike Sapiro, director of sustainability for The Coca-Cola Company across Western Europe, explains how water is the most valuable resource in the world, and why it's our responsibility to protect it for our communities, for the world, and for future generations.

Enlightened business leaders are endorsing this view because it’s becoming increasingly obvious that safe and reliable water resources are the key to security of supply, security, health and prosperity - in short: to a healthy market and healthy business. As Muhtar Kent, chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company acknowledged, “There is no resource more precious to human life and the health of our global ecosystems and economies than water.”

Why would he say that? Well, for the The Coca-Cola Company’s business with operations and markets worldwide and over 3,600 products from sparkling and still soft drinks, water, juices, smoothies and dairy, water is absolutely elementary - everywhere.

Water is key to growing and providing the many natural ingredients and fruits we need for our drinks. It is essential to our processing, bottling, washing operations all over the world. It is a foundational part of healthy and prospering communities and markets, in which we want to sell our products. And often overlooked: water is the lifeblood of the environment around us that provides us with many other services we generally take for granted.

We all recognise that more businesses need to do more to really help shift the needle - and do more together with governments, the local communities and civil society. Because truth be told, we are nowhere near managing our water resources sustainably.

The Good

Since 1990, over 2.6 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water resources, lifting the share of global population connected to a safe tap from 76% to 91%. The new Sustainable Development Goals have enshrined further progress into our global agenda until 2030.

The Bad

663 million people are still without access to safe water and 2.6 billion can’t use a toilet, which often leads to further pollution of water resources. And this in turn leads to over 2 million deaths a year from water-borne diseases, mostly in children. 40% of people live in water scarce areas today and in 2050, it is predicted that two thirds of the global population will live under water stress at least one month per year.

The Ugly

Whilst ‘The Bad’ is fixable with good policy and governance, investment and technology, what really is ugly is the change that appears to happen in some of our biggest surface water reservoirs: the poles and glaciers. According to recent research, the speed of retreat of glaciers in the Himalayas has doubled.

As a passionate - albeit infrequent - hiker in the European Alps, I have seen that retreat of the mighty ice-caps over the past year myself. It’s not only ugly to look at, it might also change the regional climate and water available in the rivers downstream. And once gone, the ice is not coming back.

The reality is that with growing populations and other contributing factors, protecting this valuable resource is also one of the greatest challenges of our time. We can’t afford to bury our head in the sand and I, for one, remain hopeful about the progress we are making to help sustain clean water for the planet.

In the face of what seems to be so much bad news we are hearing from around the world, I would like to highlight a few good stories on how progress is made on water over the coming months.

Challenge: Protect watersheds

Ulrike Blog - Water

The global water challenge is daunting and one thing we believe at Coca-Cola is that in order to tackle it, two components are critical: partnerships and solutions. Our perspective on both of these components is deliberately emphasising the plural nature of the words. “Just as no one company or organisation can solve the world’s water issues alone, no one solution can fix the enormity of the world’s water challenges. We need solutions, lots of them.”

One way to help protect community’s water is to protect watersheds, which then preserve water for all people living within the given watershed. Water funds are a way to do this. By financially investing in watersheds, which work best when the area is the water source, for example mountainous areas that collect rain and snow which then downstream into large communities, we can protect large swaths of nature and people.

Currently, here at Coca-Cola, we have invested in 50 water funds across 11 countries. We work with a host of partners like the Global Environment Facility and FEMSA Foundation to do this. The funds protect important upstream projects to help filter and regulate the supply. They can range from bringing in more sustainable farming techniques, to blocking livestock grazing along water sources, to creating conservation areas.

This investment leads to protected watersheds, which ensure clean water to many people and also back to nature.

Challenge: Reduce water stress

Communities that don’t have easy access to clean water can’t focus on other problems. It becomes a huge distraction, because when deprived of water you are deprived of a basic human need.

Coca-Cola’s partnership with UN-HABITAT addresses this head on by helping to provide improved access to clean drinking water and sanitation to communities in need. This partnership was launched by Coca-Cola India in 2007 but has now become a global-partnership extending to 12 countries. The partnership does more than just work to provide safe water and sanitation, but also to help motivate leaders in government and business to work together to continue to promote and protect clean water.

When a community’s basic needs are met like access to clean water and sanitation, the community can focus on other things like economic growth and education. In other words, ensuring clean, safe water allows for a community to flourish but without it, it is impossible.

Challenge: Provide water access

Ulrike Blog - Water

Millions of Africans without access to safe drinking water die from preventablewaterborne illnesses. It is a vast water crisis across the continent that no single organization or NGO can solve alone.

In an effort to help create a sustainable solution, The Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN) was created with the goal of improving access to clean water for 2 million people in Africa by 2015. The Coca-Cola Company supported this with a $30 million dollar commitment and worked with more than 140 partners including Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).

We not only achieved our initial goal, but we set a higher one. The Coca-Cola Company pledged an additional $35 million to support Pan-African safe water access, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programs for 4 million people by 2020.

If we work together, sustainable solutions can be possible. 

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn. Ulrike Sapiro is director of sustainability for Western Europe at The Coca-Cola Company.