An insight into how Coca-Cola and the worlds biggest brands are helping solve some of the world's most important problems.

though at the moment we only use 0.3% of the world’s water … there is an astronomical abundance of the liquid

While those of us in the developed world don’t feel it, it is no secret that the most extensive dilemma facing the world today is a water crisis.

At first glance the facts are depressing. According to Seametrics, only 54% of the world’s population have fresh and clean water piped into their homes. One billion people continue to live without any nearby source of clean source of water and, most alarmingly, one child dies every 20 minutes from a water-related issue. Looking ahead to the year 2030, according to Rob McGinnis, there will 40% less fresh water in the world than the world’s growing population will need.

But in light of a seemingly dire situation, it is important to stress – there is no such thing as a water shortage!

At the moment we only use 0.3% of the world’s water. But actually, though 99.7% of the world’s water is unusable for humans as it is all salt water or ice, there is an astronomical abundance of the liquid that underpins all life.

So with all this unusable water at our proverbial fingertips, the problem is a basic one – making it clean and safe to drink. The solution, however has proved elusive and problematic.

The most progressive and promising proposal has come from inventor Dean Kamen, founder and president of DEKA Research and Development Corp, whose ‘Slingshot’ system of water purification has been around for over a decade. The legendary inventor of the Segway’s attempt to change our world for the better utilises pre-existing technology; essentially leveraging vapor compression distillation without filters. What is so revolutionary is the size  - similar to that of a mini fridge. Kamen sums up the ‘Slingshot’ in this simple sentence:

“[It is] a simple box with two hoses on it. One that goes into anything that looks wet. Out of the other one comes pure drinking water that’s safe.” —Discovery Channel

DEKA Water Machine Inforgraphic. Via DEKA.

Previously the biggest problem was finding the funding to scale up the manufacturing and distributing it to the places where it is needed. There was talk that Coca-Cola had been convinced into distributing the device according to a May 2010 Fortune Magazine report. Until recently though, there seemed to be little movement. And then, in September we saw that things had really fallen into place. The Coca-Cola Company’s CEO Muhtah Kent and Dean Kamen, appeared on Charlie Rose to announce that they were coming together to solve the crisis. Watch the Bloomberg interview here, because you won’t find it elsewhere.

The short-term target is to place 2000 units in 2014 which will provide billions of litres clean water in that year alone.

What the Coca-Cola-Slingshot partnership will achieve is to bring pure water to villages in which there is a lack of it. The strategy is to set up the device as local community centre – what Kent refers to as an “ecosystem for life” – where villagers who once had to travel upwards of 10 kms can collect their water, thus allowing them to focus their freed up time on other things. The system will be implemented as a shipping container (8″ by 20″) with a DEKA slingshot device that produces 1000 litres of clean water daily (over 300,000 l per year).

According to Kent, this will be overseen by a female entrepreneur – a proven model which hasa high rate of success in the developing world. Villagers will even be able to charge their phones and watch a screen with current news, perhaps for the first time.

Screenshot of the Water Purification Unit – a community centre as Coca-Cola Sees it. Click to see video.

The project will begin with pilot tests in 2013 in three countries; Mexico, Paraguay and South Africa. If successful, by early 2014 the partnership will go to the next level of production and trials and will launch thousands of systems in underdeveloped countries in Africa, parts of Asia, the Indian sub-continent and Latin America. The short-term target is to place 2000 units in 2014 which will provide billions of litres clean water in that year alone.

A Cartoon by Carlos Latuff commenting on Coca-Cola’s murky approach to water in India.

Coca-Cola has long been the subject of extensive criticism, in particular over its questionable labour practices (including allegations of involvement with paramilitary organisations to quash Trade Unions in Columbia), poor environmental record, and a perception of the companies’ engagement in monopolistic business practices. Most ironically of all, the company has been subject to allegations that they are operating without impunity in India as they continue bottling operations in places such as Kala Dera; ”Extracting Groundwater Even as Farmers and Community Left Without Water“.

In light of these damning allegations, a sceptic might not bat an eyelid at the assumption that such a venture is simply a cynical attempt at greenwashing. But were such a project to really take off it would undoubtedly change lives for the better and in that context, are you really qualified to judge? In fact, assuming that Coca-Cola does not harbour secret thoughts of establishing a monopoly on all the water in the developing world, such an accusation of greenwashing proves to be profoundly nonconstructive.

In his 2010 TED Talk, “How big brands can help save biodiversity“, Jason Clay argued that by bringing the largest brands in the world together for the purpose of positive change, you can transform the planet more effectively. This is because it is the networks established by brands like Coca-Cola which are the most extensive of any non-profit organisations in the world, and thus these brands are the best equipped to tackle the world’s direst problems.

The world’s giant brands have been shaped during a century where competition is king and where the environmental and ethical impacts of their actions were both little understood and part and parcel with the capitalist system.

As corporate social responsibility agenda underpinned by a triple bottom line approach to business practice (also known as the three pillars of people, planet and profit) gradually takes hold – there is some way to go yet – we can expect to see the last gasps of the old corporate model as a new set of collaborative and socially responsible business manifestos are written.

This has been evidenced by the likes of Unilever, whose ambitious 10-year Sustainable Living Plan led by CEO Paul Poleman has come parallel to a ban releasing quarterly reports for shareholders. Poleman said in an interview with the Guardian Sustainable Business:

“I don’t think our fiduciary duty is to put shareholders first. I say the opposite. What we firmly believe is that if we focus our company on improving the lives of the world’s citizens and come up with genuine sustainable solutions…”

May it ever be the job of environmentalists and ethics watchdogs to keep two eyes on the behaviour or misbehaviour of the corporate players, but it is important to be judicious, and to retract that pointed finger when the evidence says otherwise. The sort of thinking that corporate CEOs like Paul Poleman and Muhtar Kent are exhibiting in their approach to business is precisely what is needed to forge the solutions the poorest amongst us so badly need, and such thinking must be encouraged and embraced.

Related: A Conversation About Water: To Obtain Freshwater