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Living with water

Suntory's Natural Water

Sanctuary project NURTURES the forests of Japan


It's impossible to make a good drink without good water. Building off the belief that water has always been the foundation of its business, leading beverage maker Suntory Limited is now working to ensure the sustainability of its primary resource by managing forests through its Natural Water Sanctuary project.

When Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii set out to construct Japan's first authentic whiskey distillery more than 90 years ago, he started with finding the best source of water. While many beverage producers focus on distribution advantages when screening new factory locations, Torii prioritized above all the quality of his water source. Even now, the company's whiskeys, beers and bottled mineral water products continue to make use of the same high quality groundwater. And the source of that water can be traced back to vibrant forests.

Suntory launched its Natural Water Sanctuary project in 2003 with the conviction that it's the company's responsibility to nurture forests that not only replenish but even increase water levels in the aquifers upon which its factories rely. "Harmonious coexistence with nature is at the root of our century-long business," explains Kenji Naiki, general manager of Suntory's Environmental Sustainability Strategy Department. "Looking to the future, protecting groundwater is Suntory's duty."
Now in its 11th year, the Natural Water Sanctuary project has formed partnerships with universities and research institutions to manage 7,600 hectares of Japanese woodland and forest ecosystems in 17 watershed protection areas across 13 prefectures throughout Japan.

"In the 1960s, to meet the demands of an economy in the midst of postwar reconstruction, many indigenous, naturally growing plant species were replaced with conifers like the Japanese cypress or Japanese cedar," explains Naoki Saegusa, head of Suntory's watershed protection program. "Forests became densely populated with these artificially introduced trees. But when the construction boom slowed, the land was no longer maintained as conscientiously as it previously had. Tree thinning, which is an essential process that allows sunlight to penetrate through the dense foliage, was frequently neglected. Without enough sunlight nourishing the undergrowth below, the level of water retention in the soil began to dwindle. It came to the point where we could no longer remain optimistic about the future of these forests 20 to 30 years down the line."

While the Natural Water Sanctuary project doesn't entail corporate ownership of any of the forests involved, Suntory has signed agreements in 30-year increments with various reserves and municipal offices nationwide. The designated reserves are first marked into zones that are then assessed by researchers, who painstakingly comb through every square meter on foot. Indicators such as deer population or the size of grassy areas are considered to holistically assess the health of each zone.
Such practices as the investigation of vegetative growth and soil samples before planting, carefully planned tree thinning or pruning, and the use of airborne laser mapping systems, have contributed to healthier habitats and supported greater biodiversity. Despite record rainfalls in many areas of Japan in 2013, there have been indications that landslide rates have decreased in regions managed by the Natural Water Sanctuary project. Nearly 40 of the country's most respected scholars are actively involved in analyzing the vast quantity of data collected at these sites, eager to lay the groundwork for future forest management techniques.

At the close of 2013, Suntory committed to covering 12,000 hectares of forest by 2020, aiming to restore twice as much groundwater to Japan's ecosystem as its factories consume. "It might be difficult for city-dwellers to visit these beautiful mountains," Naiki says. "But if we take the time to consider the sources of our basic daily necessities, I think our consciousness of the environment will begin to change for the better."

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