Survival for Sale: The privatization of water

By David Barouh
Linewaiters’ Gazette 6/22/2006

All day I face the barren waste without the taste of water,
Cool water.
Ol’ Dan and I with throats burned dry and souls that cry for water,
Cool, clear, water.

– Old cowboy song

Jokes about drinking the water in many Third-World nations aside, governments there have done a poor job of providing safe water to their populations, and bottled water sales have exploded. In contrast, developed nations generally have safe public water systems. Nonetheless, bottled water has long been a big seller because people assume it is purer than the water coming from their taps. But is it?

Tap water is usually chlorinated to kill bacteria. While bacteriologically safe water is a must for modern civilizations, chlorination can affect taste and can combine with organic matter to form trihalomethanes, which are suspected carcinogens, but the levels of which are regulated. Numerous reports, however, have shown that bottled water is not really safer, and that tap water is in fact far more regulated in the U.S. than bottled water. (See the 1999 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council: Bottled Water, Pure Drink or Pure Hype.)

Beyond the immediate purity and safety of bottled water are the ironic consequences of the bottling process itself. The $100 billion industry, dominated by multinationals like PepsiCo, Cadbury, Nestle, and Coca-Cola, has exploited springs, lakes, aquifers, and municipal water supplies, usually at no charge, and local residents have watched water levels in their streams and aquifers drop. Communities have fought back, notably in Maine and Michigan; and worldwide, for example, against Coca-Cola bottling initiatives in India.

In addition to draining water tables, the 35 billion plastic bottles used annually in the US are petroleum derivatives, and toxics from their manufacture are major sources of air and water pollution. The bottles end up in the waste stream, where they stress overloaded landfills or are incinerated, releasing yet more toxins that pollute air and water sources.

Pollution also results from the incidentals of retailing bottled water. While municipal water is delivered to our taps by in-place plumbing infrastructures, heavy cases of bottled water are transported to retail outlets by trucks, whose emissions produce greenhouse gases and air pollution yet are exempt from the pollution control regulations that govern automobiles. The few plastic bottles that get recycled ultimately become fiber for synthetic material and carpets, delaying but not eliminating their final destination – the overburdened waste stream that feeds landfills and incinerator ovens. So by resorting to water sold in plastic bottles, we are contributing to the very pollution of our water sources that we seek to avoid by buying bottled water in the first place – a true Catch-22.

Political dimensions of commercialized water:
The world’s population explosion and the twin Industrial and Green Revolutions of the last two centuries have made massive demands on earth’s fresh water resources, resulting in looming water shortages. The world’s poor need to have access to clean and safe drinking water; failure to ensure this access is a potential time-bomb that could eclipse, in its threat to world stability, access to that other liquid gold – oil.

At the Fourth World Water Forum, held every three years, (this year in Mexico City, amid protests by peasants and farmers directly affected by high-level decisions about water), a declaration was issued, whereby the ministers “reaffirmed” that:

“Governments have the primary role in promoting improved access to safe drinking water, improved governance at all levels and appropriate enabling environments and regulatory frameworks, adopting a pro-poor approach and with the active involvement of all stakeholders.”

And also “reaffirmed…”

“…the importance of the involvement of relevant stakeholders, particularly women and youth, in the planning and management of water services and, as appropriate, decision making processes.”

“Reaffirmed” is in quotes because these two statements actually reflect a reconsideration of a trend, evident during past World Water Forums, where municipalities in both developed and Third World countries gave ownership or administration of their water supplies to large multinational corporations. But those trends have met with disturbing and high profile failures, in some cases leading to violent confrontations with citizens subjected to them. Since then, the emerging trend in controlling and profiting from water has been bottling and selling it. This stealth privatization of a public resource is now beginning to draw the attention referred to above.

Alternatives to bottled water:
The September/October 2003 issue of E/The Environment Magazine offered this alternative to drinking bottled water: Expose tap water in a clear, uncovered bottle to sunlight for an hour, or leave tap water in the refrigerator (in an open container) for 24 hours. This will allow the volatile chlorine and trihalomethanes to dissipate out of the liquid. To remove any lingering chlorine odor, pour the processed water from one container to another around ten times.

The most popular alternative to buying bottled water is buying a water filter. Why? The per-gallon cost is a fraction of bottled water; one need not lug heavy gallon jugs and the city chlorinates tap water to ensure its microbiological purity, and then the filter removes the chlorine. This is an especially attractive strategy for New York City residents because our high quality municipal tap, which comes from reservoirs and lakes upstate and is still unfiltered. This water is delivered to the City by a series of aqueducts that are considered an engineering marvel, being powered to the city’s taps almost exclusively by gravity. When put through a home filter, our tap water is restored to free-flowing, pure water that hasn’t sat for indefinite periods in plastic bottles.

New York City instituted a comprehensive protection plan for the watershed in 1997, which involves the State, watershed municipalities, the EPA, and five environmental groups: Riverkeeper, New York Public Interest Research Group, Catskill Center, Trust for Public Land, and Open Space Institute. Under the plan, the City either buys the forest and agricultural lands of the watersheds outright, or provides financial incentives for the landowners to employ agricultural and forestry practices that protect the water’s purity. So for now, our tap water is still the best source of non-polluting hydration for you and your family to consume.

Part I of two articles. In Part II we will discuss the different types of water filters.