China's Yangtze River is the third longest river in the world. It flows for 4000 miles, starts in the Tibetan Plateau, wanders eastward towards Shanghai, and eventually dumps into the East China Sea. Its basin contains about 40% of the freshwater for China's 1.3 billion people. Many animals, including the rare Siberian crane, clouded leopard, and of course, the iconic panda, rely on the Yangtze. With over 700 tributaries flowing into this massive river, the Yangtze's total square footage is more than triple California’s size.

Rapid population growth and industrialization have exacted huge tolls on the Yangtze. The natural forest cover has fallen by two-thirds over the past 50 years, and resulted in the slippage of over 680 million tons of mud into the river. Meanwhile, over 500 dams (including the massive Three Gorges) have jolted the Yangtze's natural course—many lakes have been cut off from the river as well.  Add increased contamination, and you have a continuous environmental and potentially economic disaster in the making.

Now corporations operating in the world's most populous country realize that it is in their best long-term interest to stem the slow destruction of the Yangtze, which is critical for the survival for scores of millions of Chinese who depend on the river for survival. One such company is Coca-Cola, which has entered into a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to improve the water quality in the western stretches of the Yangtze.

Coca-Cola's executive team in China has already committed itself to improved sustainability and corporate social responsibility initiatives. But for the company to expand its business—sales increased in China almost 20% last year while falling 1% in the US—Coca-Cola must address water security. To a company with a product line composed mostly of water, tackling water issues is smart business, or else its operations will not continue much longer.

The Coca-Cola/WWF partnership works on three fronts. First, they lead watershed management projects in two crucial upper Yangtze tributaries. For example, one project works with farmers to encourage them to prevent the runoff of pig waste into water, diverting the material into bio-gas.

Bottling plants in the Yangtze basin also adopted best practices for water usage, to the point at which they can claim “water neutrality.” Coca-Cola is improving water recycling at the company's factories, and is encouraging the same throughout its supply chain. Both Coke and WWF staff also work with Chinese sugar farmers to streamline their production and reduce water use.

The partnership faces several challenges. Chinese government officials tend to avoid non-profits, choosing to micro-manage such work through locally-approved NGOs. WWF has faced criticism from other advocacy groups because of its cooperation with corporations that they view as the gist of the problem.

Perhaps some would prefer that the Chinese simply drink tea out of large glass jars, as my memory recalls when I first visited China in 1996. But with growing affluence comes evolving consumer tastes. Coca-Cola realizes that it cannot survive without clean sources of water. And by working with an organization like the WWF that has the capacity and know-how, together they may halt, or even reverse, the damage that has ruined the Yangtze since the end of World War II. Finally, another 5 of the world's 10 most polluted rivers are also on this partnership's target list—that cannot be bad trend.

Read articles like this and others by Leon Kaye on Triple Pundit.

About The Author

Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye is the founder and editor of
GreenGoPost.com. Based in California, he is a business writer and consultant. His work is has also appeared on Triple Pundit , The Guardian's Sustainable Business site and has appeared on Inhabitat and Earth911. His focus is making the business case for sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He's pictured here in Qatar, one of the Middle East countries in which he takes a keen interest because of its transformation into a post-oil economy. Other areas of interest include sustainable development in The Balkans, Brazil and Korea. He was a new media journalism fellow at the International Reporting Project, for which he covered child survival in India during February 2013. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). As of October 2013, he now lives and works in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.