The Situation

Water. It's necessary to sustain life, but to many Casual Dining restaurant chains it contributes to a dull dining experience for the customer. Many customers choose tap water not because they enjoy it but because it is what they have always drunk in the past. In response, some restaurant chains are implementing programs to help train crews to sell alternative choices to tap water, like soft drinks and non-carbonated beverages, with the goal of increasing overall guest satisfaction. Because of its own successful campaign against water, The Olive Garden has recently sent a powerful message to the entire restaurant industry - less water and more beverage choices means happier customers.

Among the environmental specters confronting humanity in the 21st century . . . a shortage of fresh water is at the top of the list, particularly in the developing world. Hardly a month passes without a new. . .alarming prediction, further deepening concern over what a World Bank expert calls the "grim arithmetic of water." Recently the United Nations said that 2.7 billion people would face severe water shortages by 2025 if consumption continues at current rates. . .yet the amount of fresh water on Earth is not increasing. Nearly 97 percent of the planet's water is salt water in seas and oceans. Close to 2 percent of Earth's water is frozen in polar ice sheets and glaciers, and a fraction of one percent is available for drinking, irrigation, and industrial use.

. . .Today an estimated 1.2 billion people drink unclean water, and about 2.5 billion lack proper toilets or sewerage systems. More than five million people die each year from water-related diseases such as cholera and dysentery. All over the globe farmers and municipalities are pumping water out of the ground faster than it can be replenished.

. . .China's Yellow River, siphoned off by farmers and cities, has failed to reach the sea most years in the past during the past decade. In North America not only does the Colorado River barely make it to the Gulf of California, but last year even the Rio Grande dried up before it merged with the Gulf of Mexico. In Central Asia the Aral Sea shrank by half after the Soviets began diverting water for cotton and other crops. Elsewhere, countless small rivers have gone dry.

"The situation in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where the American firm Bechtel bought the public water utility and then doubled prices, led to a general strike and transportation stoppage, mass arrests, violence and several deaths. You don't have to assume that a corporation like Enron Corp. might get into the water business: Enron was in the water business."

"In the United States, foreign corporations, mostly French, are grabbing up water rights as fast as they can. The major U.S. players include Bechtel, T. Boone Pickens of Texas and Monsanto. All or part of the water delivery systems in Atlanta; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Houston; Jacksonville; Jersey City; Lexington, Ky.; Peoria and San Francisco have already been privatized. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are both actively promoting privatization."

"The reason Cochabamba got into trouble in the first place was because the World Bank refused to guarantee a $25 million loan to refinance the water system unless the local government sold its public water utility to the private sector."

The Plan

Olive Garden restaurants, like many other Casual Dining locations, were facing a high-water incidence rate. They wanted their restaurant crews to emphasize the broad array of alternative beverage selections available, with the hope of reducing tap-water incidence.

The Olive Garden asked Coca-Cola to help them create their beverage plan. We stepped up to the plate and suggested a tap-water reduction program named H2NO.

H2NO is a crew education kit containing information about beverage suggestive selling techniques. Olive Garden restaurants embraced the program and even took it to a higher level, developing an employee incentive contest linked to H2NO called "Just Say No to H2O." Olive Garden sales managers set beverage-sale goals and server goals in connection with the contest. All restaurants that reached the combined goal had a chance to win an all-expenses-paid trip for servers and the management team to Atlanta, Georgia.

Neil Macleod is the man in charge of providing water and sewerage systems to roughly three million people in Durban, South Africa . . . Macleod and his engineers determined that 42 percent of the region's water was being wasted because of broken water pipes and mains, leaky toilets, and faulty plumbing. Of particular concern were two large districts, with a combined population of 500,000, where up to 87 percent of the water was being lost due to leaks and other wastage.

. . .His crews began repairing and replacing mains. They put meters on residences, replaced four-gallon flush toilets with two-gallon models, and retrofitted wasteful showerheads and water taps. To ensure that the poor would receive a basic supply of water, Macleod installed tanks in homes. . .to provide 50 gallons of water a day free to each household. Water consumption in Durban is now less than it was in 1996, even as 800,000 more people have received service.

. . .U.S. cities such as Boston, Seattle, and Albuquerque have reduced demand 20 to 25 percent by repairing aging infrastructure and retrofitting plumbing fixtures in homes. Indeed, per capita indoor water use in the U.S. has dropped since 1980. Outdoor use, however, has risen, probably because so many people have installed automatic lawn sprinkler systems. Today, the average American uses 101 gallons of water a day - more that 15 times that used by many people in developing countries.

". . .tribes and environmental groups use nineteenth-century treaties, the Endangered Species Act, and appeals to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which licenses dams, to press for the "re-reclamation" of the Columbia River watershed. If it were reclaimed, the indigenous peoples would be able to restore their "traditional cultures and livelihoods," a prospect for which they have fought since losing tribal sovereignty and territorial integrity more than a century ago."

"That dams might be "decommissioned," and thus removed, terrifies many westerners. Why? Because if we are compelled, finally, to acknowledge their deleterious impact on indigenous societies and riparian ecosystems, we will also be forced to acknowledge their vital role in nurturing the extraordinary postwar boom in western urban population and development. Consider the massive complex of dams and reservoirs that capture water from the Rockies and Wasatch, the Sierra Nevada, Cascade, and other mountain ranges, and from which it is then pumped to Denver, Las Vegas, or Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland, or Seattle. Without the seemingly limitless flow of federally subsidized (and therefore cheap) water, these cities would not have leapt into national prominence; (the same could be said of their urban counterparts located along the Missouri and Arkansas river basins, and throughout Texas' waterways). It was the "Dam-icans" and the "Water-crats" who made it possible for industry and population to flow south and west over the last three decades, giving the region immense political clout. Were we to pull the plug on any of the cisterns that pockmark the West, we would quickly discover just how unsteady were its economic foundations, how ephemeral its social stability."

The Win

Almost all participating restaurants realized significant increases in beverage sales and reduced tap-water incidence - a strong indication that Olive Garden succeeded in enhancing the customers' dining experience.

Early explorers dismissed the Colorado as one of those rivers that was "too thick to drink, too thin to plow." Today it's the lifeblood of the booming, if parched, American Southwest. Seven states and Mexico use nearly every drop, reducing a once lush delta on the Gulf of California to a sliver in a sunbaked mudflat. The river slakes the thirst of more than 25 million people and irrigates some of the nation's most profitable farms in California's Imperial Valley. But California has long taken more than its share. As demand in other states grows, it will soon have to decide whether to water its farms or its burgeoning cities.

California's allocated water usage in 2000: between 5,000 and 6,000 million cubic meters
California's actual water consumption in 2000: almost 1,000 million cubic meters more than that

"To protect corporate interests, Bolivia declared martial law."

"For four days [in 2000], the city's people shut down with general strikes and transportation stoppages. The government promised to lower rates, and the protest died. The promise was a lie, impossible to keep under intense pressure from Bechtel and the World Bank."

"On Feb. 4, thousands marched in peaceful protest, but President Hugo Banzer - their Pinochet-style dictator for most of the 70s - called out police, leaving 175 injured and two young boys blinded."

"With 90% of the 60,000 residents demanding Bechtel go, they shut the city down again on April 4. Banzer declared martial law and sent soldiers into the streets. Police were sent in the middle of the night to shut down radio stations and drag protesters from their beds and throw them in jail."

"Thousands of Bolivians walked up to 70 miles from other villages and cities to join the strike."

" 'This is a struggle for justice,' said the mayor of one town (he himself walked for 12 hours to join the protest), 'and for the removal of an international business that, even before offering us more water, had begun to charge us prices that are outrageously high.' "

"Six days later, as sympathy and anger spread across the nation, Banzer backed down on every one of the city's demands. Bechtel was tossed out of the country, but not before Banzer blamed the trouble on 'narcotraffickers.'"

Have you checked your water source lately?

This bibliography is not here just for my benefit.

1. (until 2001). "The Olive Garden Targets Tap Water and WINS," reproduced in Harper's Magazine, October 2002, as "When You're Here, you're Thirsty", in Readings, p. 14.

2. National Geographic, September 2002. "Water Pressure." p. 2, Fen Montaigne (photog. Peter Essick).

3. Chicago Tribune, Thursday, October 3, 2002. "Perils of Capitalism? Think Water Distribution" by Molly Ivins. Reproduced at

4. Water in the West. Ed. Char Miller, Oregon State University Press. ISBN 0-87071-480-5. From "Introduction", reproduced at

5. Censored 2001: 25 Years of Censored News and the Top Censored Stories of the Year (Censored, 2001), by Peter Phillips, et al. Seven Stories Press, 2001. ISBN 158322064X. "World Bank and Multinational Corporations Seek to Privatize Water."

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