I mentioned to my boss recently that if I had a lot of money, or just around $50,000, I wouldn’t use it to make a sizable down payment on a loft condo or even try to pay off my student loans. I would move to the country and buy some property that had its own natural spring, so that I would never run out of water. I would give water to my neighbors for free if they joined my club (name undetermined) and brought their own jugs.
I got this idea after noticing how much bottled water I was going through—and imagining all the profits that the companies who sold it were making. I guess, also, I’m a hobbyist on matters of survival. You can grow your own food, even make your own dirt (composting), but you can’t grow your own water. And unless you have a well or spring on property you own (and you’re fairly certain the eminent-domain squad won’t try to take over some day), then you’re at the mercy of municipal water systems or bottled water companies. I only drink municipal water when I’m really thirsty, and when bottled water is not available. In the Twin Cities, you also can gather your own natural spring water at Coldwater Spring during limited hours, though that beautiful gift of nature to us is threatened.
I’ve stared in wonder when enlightened friends of mine talk about water being holy because, among other reasons, we are all composed of about 70 percent water. And if you need something to survive, then it sure as hell seems to me that it MUST, at the very least, be treated as holy. Some have speculated that water stopped being treated properly when the Romans started using plumbing systems. I hate plumbing. I wish it was socially acceptable to bathe somewhere like Minnehaha Creek, using eco-friendly cleansers of course. And that isn’t a pipe dream. It’s a thought balloon representing a larger goal—preserving water as a human right, like air. Can you say water democracy?
An oft-quoted vice president of the World Bank declared in 1995 that the wars of the 21st century would be fought over water. Now 11 years later, battles are being waged around the globe, and in most cases they involve the usual culprits: large corporations.
Best-selling books like Water Wars, by Vandana Shiva, and Blue Gold, by Tony Clarke and Maude Barlow, have helped to highlight the world’s growing water crisis. Barlow, also working with a Canadian nonpartisan public watchdog group fighting global trends in privatization and deregulation, has blamed neoliberalism for government’s willingness to bow to corporate control of citizen services like health care, like water.
“It didn’t start with water, but water just kind of fell in there when they started talking about everything as a commodity,” she told Mother Jones in an interview. “It’s important to remember that it’s a very small, incestuous circle—these water companies, the World Water Council, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the IMF [International Monetary Fund]. There’s a lot of money to be made from the commodification of water, and these people know that whoever controls water is going to be both very rich and very powerful.”
Barlow says groups like hers are calling for a national water act in Canada, which would exempt water from all trade agreements (such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA). That approach is a broad, far-reaching one going straight to the heart of what is seen as the corporate abuse of the universal human right to water. Other groups chip away at the edges in regional water struggles. Both approaches help to galvanize the growing public support and awareness of water rights issues.
Organizations like The Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, Public Citizen, Corporate Accountability International and, locally, Friends of Coldwater have done a good job of building the momentum for an expanded movement on water rights in the public consciousness. These groups are among those on the front lines of local skirmishes in the water wars.
The current global water crisis is composed of at least three parts: 1) the quagmire of bottled water; 2) the arrogance and impunity of corporations such as Bechtel and Coca-Cola in “underdeveloped” nations; and 3) the corporatization of municipal water systems and corporate ownership of groundwater rights.
OK, you already know that basically nobody was buying bottled water 20 years ago. So why are we buying it now? Is it just a really successful marketing campaign? Is that why we decide to pay 200 times the price of tap water to buy Dasani (a Coke product made from tap water), Aquafina (a Pepsi product made from tap water), Evian (real spring water from France) or Fuji or any other brand? I started filtering water in the mid-’90s, after I heard about all the lead and chlorine in the municipal water supply. I eventually graduated to buying bottled water products, thinking that I was doing a good thing for myself. Soon the products were everywhere. What I didn’t realize, though, is that bottled water can ruin local watersheds, drain aquifers and generate over 20 billion plastic bottles in landfills annually, according to Public Citizen.
Food giants like Nestlé keep tapping local springs everywhere for its bottled water business, which racks up more than $2.7 billion annually in sales. Half of all Americans drink bottled water and one-sixth of us drink only bottled water, according to Corporate Accountability International. Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Nestlé bottled water brands account for almost half of the $55 billion bottled water market.
As author Dave Dempsey pointed out in a Strib article in August: “While the water-for-sale industry says putting water in a bottle and selling it at a profit is no different that using water to grow potatoes or process taconite, that’s wrong. Water bottlers are claiming they can own water, which belongs to us all.” Dempsey wrote “On the Brink: The Great Lakes in the 21st Century,” and is working to prevent Minnesota from allowing companies to buy water rights to sell, for example, bottled water taken from Lake Superior. He says the bottled water industry works hard to ensure that laws and trade agreements stipulate that water in small containers should be exempt from water use restrictions, a practice that “undermines the protection of water as a public resource that cannot be owned or sold by anyone.” He urges state lawmakers to toughen legislation so that “no private interest can claim to own, and sell, the waters of Minnesota.”
Conscientious recycling can help alleviate the plastics landfill problem, as can the use of non-leaching, reusable containers if you transport your home-filtered water—but as long as demand for bottled water continues to grow, bottled water industries will continue to flourish absent a public clamor for reform.
Campaign to Stop Killer Coke
This global effort (www.killercoke.org) has organized active campaigns at 128 colleges and universities (including the University of Minnesota) and 15 high schools. Coke products not only include carbonated beverages (which use water) but, as mentioned earlier, bottled water products like Dasani, made here from tap water. Among the reasons the group gives for boycotting Coca-Cola are:
* overexploitation and pollution of water sources in India, Mexico, Ghana and elsewhere;
* use of child labor in sugar cane fields in El Salvador
* the murders of nine union leaders at Coca-Cola’s bottling plants in Columbia. Hundreds of other Coke workers have been tortured, kidnapped and/or illegally detained by violent paramilitaries, often working closely with plant managers.
*giving executives hundreds of millions of dollars in stock options and bonuses while laying off thousands of employees.
At least seven Indian states have imposed full or partial bans on Coca-Cola and Pepsico, citing public health concerns. The bans have come about as a result of new studies by the Center for Science and Environment which found that pesticide residues in cola products made by the two companies in India were 24 times higher than European Union (EU) standards.
Coca-Cola’s bottling plant in Plachimada, Kerala, India, has remained shut down since March 2004 because of community opposition—accusations include severe water shortages and pollution. “Americans should firmly protest the U.S. government support and promotion of such predatory U.S. investments that destroys lives and livelihoods for profits in other countries,” said C.R. Bijoy of the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties in Kerala.
In the 2004 elections, contributions of $387,692 were made to George Bush, and the Republican Party by Coca-Cola company, Coca-Cola Enterprises and its affiliates, according to IndiaResource.org. Indian reformers advocate the following tenets in an international campaign: the rights of communities to natural resources; the rights of communities to live free of toxics and violence; the rights of marginalized communities to be free of disproportional burdens; the rights of workers to organize freely; and, the rights to water as a fundamental human right.
There is precedence for victories of smaller nations over corporate behemoths. Bechtel, for example, was successfully kicked out of Bolivia after citizens protested the 20 percent of their income they needed to spend on water because of the corporate giant’s criminally-greedy practices. Uruguay is another example where water battles have erupted. In 2005, the country voted to declare water as a fundamental human right. But the corporations there, according to Barlow, are poised to thwart that mandate, and the outcome of that dispute remains unsettled.
Municipal Water & Groundwater Rights
We should know we’re in deep water when Texas billionaires start buying up groundwater rights like it’s Blue Gold, just another investment to those who know the value of Texas Gold. It might have something to do with the fact that a gallon of bottled water is more expensive than a gallon of gasoline. These moneyed power freaks offer landowners too much money to pass up in most cases. In the 1990s, the Bass brothers of Texas snapped up about 30,000 acres of farmland in the Imperial Valley along the Mexican border, speculating on the value of the farmland’s water rights. And corporate control of municipal water systems, too, is becoming more common. But some communities are fighting back.
In March 2006, Barnstead, N.H. (population 4,800), passed a law banning corporations from mining and selling town water. The law also stripped corporations of constitutional power and authority. The town had enlisted the help of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, and that group suggested they get an attorney. Their attorney, Thomas Linzey, worked up a town crowd when he told them that the regulatory system worked just fine—for corporations. He described how people in Pennsylvania townships, facing unwanted corporate invasions, had asserted municipal control by passing their own laws. The crowd bought it and passed the new law. According to this tack, asserting local authority over corporations was the only way the people of Barnstead could protect their groundwater and their rights.
John Earl, with the group Public Citizen, which opposes the privatization of water, is emphatic. “It’s a boondoggle,” he said in response to the Barnstead example. Water “should be provided for the public good—not for profits to stockholders.”
But the corporations, with so much money at stake, will not back down easily. Just ask Maxine McKeown, an 86-year-old woman from outside Brookings, S.D., who in mid-’70s helped stop none other than Bechtel from building a water pipeline that would siphon the Oahe Reservoir. Now, some 30 years later, she still says, “The water wars are just beginning.”