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Great Lakes Article:

Campaigners contest water selloff Catch-22
Amanda Suutari
The Japan Times
03/19/03

As the Third World Water Forum enters its fifth day, debate over who should control the world's fresh water has become sharply polarized.
The World Water Council -- largely comprising global water giants, banks, hydropower and construction corporations -- is promoting private-sector involvement in water services, especially in the developing world.

On the other hand, delegates to the Kansai forum from citizens' coalitions and nongovernmental organizations are insisting that corporations shouldn't own this basic necessity.

Michigan-based coalition Sweetwater Alliance's battle to block the diversion of the state's groundwater by Nestle is one such example. In May 2002, the corporation bought an $85 permit to pump an aquifer in Mecosta County, Michigan, as a source of Ice Mountain, one of its 70 brands of bottled water. This groundwater is part of the Great Lakes basin that nourishes the region's network of streams and wetlands.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, which allows movement of goods such as bottled water across state borders, is making it hard for the activists to halt the water's wholesale removal. It may get even more difficult under new agreements; the World Trade Organization is preparing measures to dissolve as many barriers to global trade as possible, including tariffs and laws protecting the environment and regulations affecting services ranging from energy to healthcare, education and supplies of the world's shrinking freshwater resources, for which -- unlike oil -- there is no substitute.

"We are captive consumers," says Sweetwater campaigner Holly Wren-Spaulding. Indeed, Nestle earns a hefty $1.8 million a day selling Ice Mountain. Globally, the bottled-water industry, which uses 1.5 million tons of plastic per year, is proliferating as water becomes more degraded.

As the world's biggest distributor, scarcity or pollution of the resource is a potential marketing opportunity for Nestle, especially in developing countries.

"One of the many public relations angles on bottled water is that -- because of contamination of water resources -- there are places where people don't have access to clean water," says Wren-Spaulding. "So [these companies] tell us they're doing it almost as a humanitarian gesture. [But] our solutions to the lack of clean water are not by bottling it."

For Wren-Spaulding and the Sweetwater Alliance, simple, cheap solutions to preserving precious water resources abound. "I think as individuals we need to look at our lifestyles and consider what our alternatives are to buying little plastic bottles.

"Here, I have attended [a forum session on indigenous cultures and water] because, though I'm part of a movement defending our water, we also have to be the ones proposing the alternatives. So there's a lot of self-education that goes along with our struggle."

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