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Water Unite: United to End Water Poverty and Plastic Pollution

Paul Greener — Chief Executive Officer, Water Unite
Photo by mali maeder from Pexels

Bottled water is a big and growing business. Global consumers are expected to buy over 550 billion liters of packaged water annually by 2020 with a value of over USD 200 billion. At the same time, more than 800 million people do not have basic access to clean drinking water, and more than 2 billion lack proper toilets. Bottled water sales also bring environmental challenges, especially how to minimize ensuing plastic waste.

In response, Water Unite is building a collaborative platform for the bottled water sector and concerned stakeholders to join in actions to end water poverty for hundreds of millions of people and to substantially reduce plastic pollution by 2030.

The heart of the project is to capture a micro-contribution from bottled water revenues – 1 cent per liter of water sold – to mobilize a long-term and sustainable revenue stream to invest in solutions to these twin problems. ​Such a levy has the potential to raise hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars annually. As a new, and flexible source of development finance, Water Unite can play a catalytic role in the existing financing landscape, leveraging investments to target the most underserved people.

Generous support from The Rockefeller, Osprey, Stone Family and Vitol Foundations enabled the feasibility and initial set up phase of Water Unite. The Co-operative Group (Co-op), the fifth largest food retailer in the UK, has joined as a pioneer partner – every branded bottle sold by Co-op contributes a penny per liter to Water Unite, with a commitment until 2030. We are in active dialogue with dozens of other major bottled water retailers. A new board, chaired by Lord Malcolm Bruce, has been appointed. Based on a catalytic financing approach, early grants have been identified for three initial programs:

  • Sanitation for millions (S4M): a global, multi-donor program to improve access to safely managed sanitation and hygiene services, targeting countries afflicted by high numbers of refugees.  Implemented by the GIZ and co-funded by the German aid program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the government of Hungary, initial interventions take place in schools, health centers and public institutions in Pakistan, Jordan and Uganda, with special attention given to the needs of women and girls. At least 200,000 people are expected to have improved access to sanitation services in this phase, with plans to further expand the impact to other countries in Asia and Africa.
  • Mobilizing blended finance for water security in Cape Town: Between 2015 and 2018, a severe drought threatened the water security of Cape Town’s 4 million people, exacerbating the divide between rich and poor. The day that the taps run dry, dubbed “Day Zero”, was narrowly avoided, but the threat remains. One cost-effective way to address the crisis is to restore the ecological health of Cape Town’s supply watersheds which could generate 50 billion liters of water gains per year, a sixth of Cape Town’s supply needs. Water Unite will support its partner The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to define a blended financing strategy to raise the necessary investments for this initiative – the Greater Cape Town Water Fund. The strategy will explore potential long-term municipal funding and identify investable opportunities for development and commercial banks.
  • Strengthening the plastic value chain in Mozambique: 98% of waste in Mozambique remains untreated. Weak collection infrastructure undermines the viability of the recycling industry. New Extended Producer Responsibility regulation on packaging materials, adopted in 2017, introduced an environmental tax on packaging material to support recycling.  Producers that can demonstrate that they are collecting and recycling packaging materials may benefit from a rebate – providing an incentive to develop efficient collection systems. Water Unite is partnering with a Mozambican recycling company, 3R (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle) in the city of Beira to test the performance of distributed waste collection models.  In view of the recent devastation of Beira by Cyclone Idai, 3R and its partners will also support the massive clean-up required as the water recedes, to address the risk of diseases, vermin, and mosquitos.

Beyond this, Water Unite is a signatory to the Global Commitment of the Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation for the New Plastic Economy, an initiative which has rallied businesses and governments behind a positive vision of a circular economy for plastics.

Our journey has begun, and we invite our friends and collaborators to continue with us.

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