x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

U2's Bono inspires UAE eco-campaign to cut water-bottle waste

The Life: Whole World Water is a social media campaign to get hotels to filter, bottle and sell their own water - and donate a portion of the proceeds to help those who lack access to clean water.

Jenifer Willig, left, and Karena Albers founded Whole World Water to encourage hotels to filter, bottle and sell their own water. Michael Nagle for The National
Jenifer Willig, left, and Karena Albers founded Whole World Water to encourage hotels to filter, bottle and sell their own water. Michael Nagle for The National

When the documentary film maker Karena Albers attended a 2011 sustainability symposium with representatives of the hospitality and tourism industry, she found herself inspired.

The meeting was hosted by Sonu Shivdasani, the chief executive of Soneva Resorts and the founder of Six Senses resorts and spas.

And Ms Albers was impressed by the fact he was filtering and bottling the water he sold to guests at his hotel on site. Not only that, the hotelier was also donating a percentage of the profit to environmental causes worldwide, something Ms Albers thought should be expanded industrywide.

"The idea was really very simple," she explains. "Why don't you take what you are doing here and bring it to the travel and tourism industry at large?"

Pondering the idea, her thoughts turned to the Red Campaign to fight Aids in Africa founded by the U2 frontman Bono. The concept encouraged global entities such as Nike, Apple and Starbucks to come up with a product that would carry Red branding and raise money and awareness about the disease.

She met Jenifer Willig, the former chief executive of Red, and the pair clicked. Ms Willig agreed the idea had potential.

"When Karena approached it seemed like a no-brainer," she says. "When I was at Red I was really passionate about getting the private sector together to get involved in large sweeping social change and some of the biggest issues facing the planet."

On March 22 - World Water Day - the pair launched Whole World Water (WWW), a social media campaign to get hotels, resorts, spas and restaurants to filter, bottle and sell their own water.

In exchange for a fee, the company becomes a member of WWW; for hotels this is US$1,000 per property. That bestows the right to use WWW branding and be included in the marketing campaign. The next step is to install the filtering system and start bottling sparking and still water. Lastly, the company agrees to give 10 per cent of the profit from the water sold to the World Water Fund, which aims to raise $1 billion a year to help the 1 billion people worldwide who do not have access to clean water.

The pair also say that switching from plastic bottles to filtering can boost the company's bottom line by as much as 25 per cent.

"Everyone has been very receptive to the idea because it's so simple," says Ms Willig, who adds that filtration systems are fairly cheap and easy to install.

"Not only do they understand the size and scope of the water [problem] but everyone is also trying to figure out a way to reduce their use of plastic. I think the challenge now is how quickly everyone can bring it on board."

In the UAE, nearly all water is desalinated. But Ms Albers is optimistic that the idea of filtering desalinated water is catching on.

"The standards of desalinated water [in the Gulf region] are very, very high," she says. "People are starting to filter the desalinated water in their own homes. I think there is a big movement to look at new ways to address the fact the whole region is running out of water and the idea of shipping in millions of plastic bottles just isn't a sustainable solution."

So far, about 20 chains or individual hotels have signed up, including Dusit Hotels and Resorts, Jetwing and Virgin, where Sir Richard Branson is an adviser. WWW aims to have 1,000 hotels participating by the end of the year.

However, they might have their work cut out.

Gerald Lawless, the chief executive of Jumeirah Group, is seeking more clarification from WWW. He points out that Jumeirah provides guests with water in their rooms free of charge, but WWW wants hotels to charge guests for filtered water.

"We are in business to do business and, yes, we must have a very responsible approach to sustainability. But we must do it in a way that [is] sensible and measured and that is commercial," Mr Lawless says. "And I don't like that guests would have to pay for water that we are [currently] not charging for. For me, the jury is still out on that particular one."