The Beer-Water Nexus

May 18, 2011

Does the path to clean, safe water lead through a brewery?

Andy Wales, head of sustainable development at global brewer SABMiller, maintains it can happen.  The maker of Miller beer — and 20 other brands, from Aguila in Colombia to Zolotaya Bochka Klassicheskoye in Russia — likes the environmental angle, but the main impetus is to ensure production of their products in what is a highly variable business from location to location.

“Water is obviously a critical part of high quality beer,” Wales said by telephone from London. One important part of this equation is figuring out how to use less water and still make good beer.

What this means in practice is working with groups like World Wildlife Fund and GIZ, a German organization that coordinates international development and sustainable development efforts. It also means recognizing the potential for water scarcity and the need for conservation. The four countries seen as having the biggest long-term water risk are South Africa, Ukraine, Tanzania and Peru, Wales said.

“The goal is to reduce our water use per liter of beer by 25 percent by 2015 over a 2008 base,” Wales said. “So that’s from 4.6 liters per liter of beer to 3.5 liters by 2015. Water efficiency’s a big part of our operations everywhere.”

What does this have to do with making good beer? In South Africa, beer-making hops grow in the George region of the Eastern Cape — an area where weather patterns are shifting due to climate change. To keep the hops growing and beer flowing, SABMiller worked with a government scientific research organization called CSIR to understand risks to that watershed, and risks to the supply of water for irrigation of hops.

In Tanzania, water is scarce for another reason: infrastructure. The country’s biggest city, Dar es Salaam, is home to 4 million people, with a water supply for only 400,000 drawn from a source 90 kilometers away. Because the infrastructure to carry the water has problems, many local businesses dig for water, draining the water table. Since Dar es Salaam is a coastal city, digging for water near the ocean allows salt water to intrude into the water supply. One response to this is to invest in equipment to protect the main water supply, Wales said. Another is to seek better enforcement and regulation of ground water.

“We understand long-term this is absolutely critical for the growth of our business,” Wales said. “… Everyone in our breweries understands the importance of using less water.”

Photo credit: REUTERS/Grant Neuenburg (Workers package beer at Cervejas de Mocambique, a subsidiary of giant SAB Miller, in Maputo, March 17, 2009)

REUTERS/Andrea De Silva (Kaieteur Falls in southern Guyana, April 10, 2011)


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