Privatising Water, Creating Suffering

Globally, there is a severe water crisis. Billions of people lack access to safe supplies of drinking water and water-borne illnesses continue to be a problem in many regions of the world as people drink from contaminated water, cannot adequately control hazardous waste materials, and receive inadequate health care to meet their needs. Water is a critical resource and in many regions there are increasing tensions over who has access to it, who does not, and who gets to control it.

At the head of this are corporations with a vested interest in privatsing water supplies. Water is big business, and companies that control water stand to make substantial profits. Globally, the increasing privatisation of water resources is on the rise. Communities receive pennies on the dollar for the water they sell to privatising companies, and may receive minimal support or assistance when they start to experience water shortages and other issues. Companies have their contracts for a set amount of water, and they don’t really care how they get it, or who they harm to access it. Their goal is simply to extract more water. Attempts to push back, as seen with protests against Fiji Water, often receive scant media coverage and support; many reporters, after all, probably have branded water bottles on their desks.

Organizations like the United Nations appear to be promoting policies that lead to privatisation and the exploitation of water resources. These groups should be working on improving access to water supplies in communities where clean drinking water is not available, not helping corporations take water and sell it at vast personal gain. When UN projects are funded and supported by organisations with interests that may run contrary to its stated mission, it is safe to say that we have a significant problem, and one that needs to be addressed by the member nations. Water, like other resources, is ripe for exploitation from communities that may lack the authority and clout to resist it, and may in fact need that resource for themselves.

Issues of privatisation are often framed around the developing world, as something ‘they’ have to struggle with, something ‘we’ should rescue ‘them’ from, but in fact the industrialised world has some problems of its own. Northern California faces chronic water shortages not just because of siphoning from Southern California, but also because of private water packaging and sales. In Britain, vulnerable waterways are being drained dry by private water companies. Public resources that should be common to all are falling under the control of a limited number of people, and society as a whole suffers.

It’s not just that human communities need their water supplies for drinking, bathing, and irrigation, but also that water is an important environmental feature. Animal habitats rely on water, native plants need consistent and appropriate supplies of water. Rivers and lakes are there for a reason, and allowing companies to drain them to sell their contents is potentially extremely dangerous, for the humans who need that water, for the environment, for the continued stability of potentially delicate and complex ecosystems.

Fighting water privatisation is a critical environmental and social issue, but despite increased consciousness on this subject, the bottled water industry is booming. Bottled water is a ubiquitous sight and the same outlandish labeling claims that have been singled out for criticism persist because there has been no real push for change. Misleading statements about the origins of water and the communities it is taken from, what is in the bottle, the ‘benefits’ of bottled water. In the industrialised world, where most people have access to potable, safe water directly out of the tap, some of the safest water in the world, people buy bottled water in droves and flock particularly to exoticised products from the wilds of the jungle or glaciers or whatever natural source is in at any given time, with scant attention to the costs that may be embedded in that water bottle.

Information on the costs of privatisation and the way it harms communities is readily available, with fairly minimal research, but resistance to bottled water is framed as ridiculous. Look at San Francisco’s decision to turn away from spending city monies on providing bottled water to city personnel. This is an example of a concrete action taken to protest privatisation and reduce the market for bottled water, and to set an example to the rest of the city, to show people that it is possible to live without bottled water and to promote the use of tap sources. Yet, media reports often recounted this tale as an ‘oddly enough’ news item, not important political and environmental news but another example of those silly people in San Francisco.

My socially conscious grocery store has racks and racks of bottled water, including products with exotic labeling and claims intended to seduce buyers. I occasionally drop them notes asking why they continue to sell a product associated with documented harms, and have yet to receive a response. I suspect my notes are written off, rather than taken seriously for what they are, or that the store argues that it is simply accommodating the needs of a market, that people will buy water somewhere so it might as well sell it. Imagine what would happen if chains like Whole Foods decided to stop selling bottled water and posted signage talking about why, if they put their claims of environmental friendliness where their mouths are. I suspect we’d see a shift in attitudes about bottled water, and more resistance from privatisation from people in positions of power to actually do something about it.