by SID PRANKE
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 (see article this issue by Susu Jeffrey), 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?
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:
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,
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
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
* 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
*giving executives hundreds of millions of dollars in stock options and bonuses
while laying off thousands of employees.
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
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
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
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.” ||