Dive into Clean Water

Many HR professionals from diverse companies have taken on this critical global issue.

By Aliah D. Wright Jun 1, 2009
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June CoverWhile a number of companies make providing clean water a priority for their business operations—such as Nestlé’s subsidiary in India—others help communities in foreign lands by digging wells, practicing water conservation and supplying water filtration devices.

From funding programs that provide clean water to remote villages in Africa, India and Latin America to raising awareness about water sanitation, more companies are looking to human resource professionals for help in spearheading these efforts.

Many HR practitioners aren’t just capitalizing on the human talent within their organizations to facilitate these initiatives, they’re operating as strategic partners to provide assistance. Many, such as Mindy Frink of The Beck Group and Eldine Magnan of Rosen Hotels & Resorts, are traveling the globe and rolling up their shirt sleeves, too.

Why Water?

Most U.S. citizens don’t think twice about water—rural and city dwellers alike turn on the tap, and pure, colorless, odorless water appears. But for 2 billion people worldwide, access to safe and clean water may be a matter of life and death, says John Oldfield, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Water Advocates, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing American support for worldwide access to safe, clean water. Experts say diseases related to unsafe water kill 2 million to 5 million people every year, and sicken millions more.

When HR professionals think of a corporate social responsibility effort, they may not think that water, a basic necessity, would be an issue. Yet, says Oldfield, "clean water is arguably the world’s largest public health problem."

How big? It’s one of the eight Millennium Development goals set by the United Nations (U.N.) to end poverty by 2015. The U.N. states that since 1990, some 1.6 billion people have gained access to safe drinking water, but about 1 billion still lack access to clean water and 2.5 billion lack access to basic sanitation services.

"This isn’t rocket science," says Oldfield.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, by 2030 nearly half of the world’s population will live in areas with severe water stress—a big problem for any company in a business where clean water is a necessity.

It’s not just about altruism, says Andy Savitz, author of The Triple Bottom Line (John Wiley & Sons, 2006) and founder of the Boston-based consultancy Sustainable Business Strategies.

"If you want to do business in water-stressed areas … you’ve got a vested interest in helping residents" obtain clean water, Savitz says. Take PepsiCo, for example. Savitz says the soft-drink maker has committed more than $16 billion to organizations working to bring safe water to developing countries.

"Their products depend on the agriculture supply chain, so when they go into developing countries they look for local suppliers," Savitz says. PepsiCo works directly with its suppliers on water conservation—everything from rainwater capture to efficient irrigation methods to recycling to using crops that are less water-dependent, he says.

"Without water, they risk their business," says Savitz.

Not Just Chocolate

Nestlé India also has a vested interest in solving that nation’s water problems. It, too, wants to be sure it can produce its products locally. About half of its 480 factories are located in developing countries.

In India, the company doesn’t just make chocolate. It produces milk products, prepared dishes, cooking aids and a host of beverages that are staples to Indian consumers. The company has introduced a water education program, has bored wells for nearly 100 village schools for children and teaches hygiene programs.

"Water is, of course, critical for a global food and beverage company like Nestlé," says Christian Frutiger, the company’s public affairs manager. "Our village school wells project in India is probably the most telling example.

"So far, 96 such village school wells have been completed. The program started in the villages around the Nestlé factories and gradually expanded to the entire milk district."

Nestlé wants to create value for its shareholders and generate long-term value for society, Frutiger says. To that end, the company has a vested interest in making sure clean water is available for its operations.

Employees at Dow Chemical Co., working with WaterHealth International, are helping to supply cleaner and safer water to those in need with low-cost desalination technologies.

In rural India, Dow is providing $30 million in loan guarantees to support the financing of up to 2,000 community water systems from WaterHealth International, which will serve

11 million people who presently do not have access to safe drinking water. The company was recently given an ICIS Innovation Award for reusing municipal wastewater at its site in Terneuzen in the Netherlands. ICIS is the world’s largest information provider for the oil and chemical industry.

Adam Muellerweiss, director of global water strategy for Dow in Midland, Mich., says his employees have embraced corporate social responsibility initiatives for years.

"We do seek counsel from our human resource leaders on resources and opportunities to tap into the human talent within our company" to assist in these projects, he says.

Small Organizations, Too

HR departments in large companies aren’t the only ones helping find sustainable water solutions for business development and corporate social responsibility. Human capital managers at smaller companies such as The Beck Group, Carey International Inc. and Rosen Hotels & Resorts are also doing their part.

In 2005, Beck, a commercial construction, architecture and development company in Dallas, founded The Beck Community Development Foundation. The company initially worked with a nonprofit called Living Water International to drill wells in El Salvador. But as a commercial contractor, Beck decided to capitalize on the talent within its organization to build the wells.

Each year, working closely with HR to make sure its operations stateside aren’t understaffed, it sends a team of employees to Latin American communities to build wells, schools and more.

"There are eight people in our HR department, but not all of us have gone on these trips," says Frink, Beck’s spokeswoman and manager of its continuing education program. She has made four such trips.

"We’re getting more and more involved personally, and not just who goes but what they bring," she says. "We have more than 600 people in this company, and, unless you’re in [the HR] department, it’s hard to know who all of the employees are and what particular skills they bring" to assist these efforts.

For nearly two years, Beck has sent seven- to 16-person teams to rural El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Nicaragua for projects that provide clean water wells, infrastructure, building repair, school building construction and more.

During a trip to a small, rural community on the coast near Acajutla, El Salvador, Frink was stunned to see "people living near rivers and using it to bathe in, to drink and to wash their clothes. Their animals would be in the water. You just knew it wasn’t sanitary.

"Once you correct the water issue, they can face working with you to tackle other problems. Water is the lifeblood," says Frink.

‘Part of the Ship’

Perhaps Gary Kessler, president and CEO of Carey International, an 88-year-old limousine company based in Washington, D.C., has a point when he says, "Being a socially responsible company involves more than being environmentally conscious. It requires you to give back to your communities and operate in a way that benefits the greater good."

In addition to ferrying the rich and famous in more than 65 countries worldwide, Carey International has been carrying bottled water from One Water, a nonprofit provider of water, in the back of its cars to assist those without clean water in Africa. Proceeds from Carey International’s purchase of One Water go toward building PlayPump water pumping systems in Africa.

Installed near schools, the PlayPump system doubles as a water pump and a merry-go-round. When children play on the merry-go-rounds, clean water is pumped from deep underground into large storage tanks connected to taps, providing safe water for schools and communities, Carey International says.

Schools with pumps use the water to grow vegetables and fruit, providing a better diet for students. The pump also helps the schools generate income from produce sales. So far, One Water and the One Foundation, the charitable division of Global Ethics Ltd., say they have funded hundreds of installations, providing water to hundreds of thousands of people.

The idea for this initiative grew from employees in Carey’s London office, says Rae Fawcett, chairman of Carey International’s Strategy Committee and senior vice president of human capital.

She says that while ideas for corporate social responsibility can and should "bubble up" from anywhere in an organization, HR can and should step up when these ideas are presented.

"You’re ‘at the table’ if you’re part of the company’s core functioning. It’s one of the reasons why I try to keep away from HR initiatives and try to push more corporate initiatives," says Fawcett.

Benefits Prove Vast

Water advocacy provides companies with favorable publicity and serves as a great recruitment tool, aids employee retention, improves employee relations and boosts productivity.

With the economy currently in turmoil and people losing their jobs while others are left to deal with the stress of working harder with fewer resources, "It’s even more critical that companies build something that everyone can be excited about," says employee engagement expert Michelle Sterling, founder and president of Arizona-based building b: solutions, an HR consultancy that provides custom training for small and mid-size companies.

Corporate social responsibility "builds employee engagement," Sterling says. When people are focused on something bigger than themselves, it brings out the best in them and instills in them a sense of pride and dedication."

Eldine Magnan, director of housekeeping at Rosen Hotels & Resorts and a former member of its HR department, attests to the positive results. For more than four years, Rosen, which operates seven Orlando, Fla., hotels, has delivered nearly 200 water filtration devices to hospitals, schools and orphanages throughout Haiti, the birthplace of many of Rosen Hotels’ 4,500 employees.

"My family is from Haiti, and the company doing this has inspired me; it’s very rewarding," says Magnan.

Jonni Kimberly, human resources director for Rosen Hotels & Resorts, says she, too, has seen the benefits. "People like to know that part of the profit of the company goes back to help the community."

Adds author and motivational speaker Tim Richardson, who is writing a book about people and organizations that enrich the lives of others, "When you give people an opportunity to care and make a difference, it cements a relationship with an employee."


The author is an online editor/manager at SHRM.

Web Extras

SHRM article: Corporate Social Responsibility: HR’s Leadership Role (HR Magazine)

SHRM article: Corporate Social Responsibility Pays Off (HR Magazine)

SHRM toolkit: Corporate Citizenship

Web site: Sustainable Business Strategies

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