Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo

Last Friday in Davos I attended another early morning session, starting at 7.15am. Walking over from the place I was staying to the coffee shop booked for the discussion, there was some snow falling, gently, slowly, turning semi-urban Davos into more of a mountain resort than it looked before.

I had been invited to this exchange by Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo and one of the strongest supporters of the 2030 Water Resources Group (WRG), and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). Together on the panel with me was Gary White, co-founder of water.org.

My ‘assignment’ for the meeting was to talk about my 2012-13 role as “water ambassador” for the UN Secretary General’s Eminent Persons Group for post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (MDGs). Based on an informal consultation through e-mail, discussions and this blog, I developed my proposals.

On the water goal - with four targets within the post-2015 framework - I am not going to repeat what I wrote in my post yesterday (the press conference with Amina Mohammed and others).

Just one point of context and action: water is a human right, and we must make sure that within the next ten to - maximum - fifteen years, everybody in the world has access to improved and if possible truly safe water for their daily survival (drinking, cooking, and basic hygiene). If more is not possible, this is more about achieving 20-30 litres per capita per day in the next few years than academic discussions about higher volumes in a more distant future. This is where the MDGs come in; they are not primarily about declarations but about bringing focus and momentum to relevant and effective action.

Here I underlined the importance of organisations such as water.org, which empower communities to solve their municipal water supply issues, the commitments of WBCSD members on sanitation, and of my own organisation - the 2030 Water Resources Group - that helps to set up strategies to bring freshwater withdrawals back into line with sustainable supply. And I complimented Indra for her long-term engagement in the water issue, and also her involvement in the 2030 WRG.

Gary White explained where he saw the way to effective action towards the target for universal access to safe drinking water. He said that people should not be caught up in being on a soap box and saying we need more concessions, more subsidies and a lower water price. Instead, he suggested, they should be looking around the other way, towards realities.

Today, most of the poor are paying huge amounts to dubious street vendors for water, to loan sharks to get loans to buy water filters, connections or whatever. And so, he said, we need to help the poor tap in into this intrinsic power that they have as customers. What water.org is doing is bringing microfinance institutions into these communities and extending loans to people so that they can pay the connection fees to the official municipal water supply. He does not look at the poor as those who are going to drain the system but as those who can show up as customers.

This is a language one does not hear very often from NGOs: the poor as citizens and consumers, empowered and responsible, not waiting for somebody else to do the job for them. But the success of water.org shows that it is a good approach.