contest water selloff Catch-22
The Japan Times
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
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
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."