Water wars: Bottling up the world's supply of H2O

Clean, unpolluted, affordable water. There is nothing more important in the world — but it's in serious danger.

From health and environmental concerns to the very question of who should control the Earth's water supply, the issue can be distilled into a simple, opening proposition: tap, or bottled water?

As Americans, we are all fortunate enough to live in a country where clean, drinkable tap water is a reality, making bottled water a "luxury" rather than a necessity.

However, there is a perception among many people that bottled water is somehow more healthy or pure than water from their tap. This is simply an illusion of marketing.

A four-year study by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), released in 1999, found that one-fifth of the sampled bottled waters contained known neurotoxins and carcinogens such as styrene, toluene and xylene. Another NRDC study found that, out of 103 brands of bottled water, one-third contained traces of arsenic and E. coli. This means that out of a sample of 1,000 bottles sold in the U.S., at least 300 would have some level of chemical contamination.

But how can bottled water be contaminated and still be sold in the U.S.? The answer is simple.

Bottled water is one of the world's least-regulated industries, and is usually held to less-stringent standards than tap water. Since tap water is a public resource, extensive documentation on its quality and content must be made available to the consumer. There is no such accountability for bottled water, which is regulated more like a soft drink than a public resource.

Bottled water gives the pre-packaged impression of safety — if it's in a bottle, it must be safe and clean. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, as evidenced by the worldwide recall of Perrier in the early 1990s, in which the bottled water was found to have benzene, a poison that has produced cancer in lab animals.

When you factor in the devastating environmental costs associated with bottling a public, natural resource, the difference between bottled and tap becomes even clearer.

The most common plastic used in water bottle manufacturing is PET (polyethylene terephthalate), an environmentally unfriendly substance that actually requires 17.5 kilograms of water to produce only 1 kilogram of PET. In fact, more water is used to make PET bottles than is actually put into them.

The production of the plastic also produces numerous byproducts that are extremely harmful to the environment. The Container Recycling Institute reported that 14 billion water bottles were sold in the U.S. in 2002, yet only 10 percent of these bottles were recycled — 90 percent ended up in the trash. That's an extra 12.6 billion plastic bottles for the landfills; bottles that contained water that was no more — and often less — healthy than tap water.

Granted, there are many places in the world where bottled water is the only source of drinkable water, and thus it becomes much more than a luxury item. However, bottled water is ultimately a Band-Aid solution. Rather than actually solving the problem — making public water clean, affordable and environmentally friendly — the citizens of these countries are forced to pay exorbitant prices for water that comes in an environmentally unfriendly delivery system.

Whether in America or less-developed countries, the evidence is as clear as the plastic it's sold in — bottled water, compared to good tap water, is not worth the costs, whether they be environmental, health-related or economic.

But bottled water is not the only danger to clean, affordable tap water — it is simply one part of a much larger issue.

Fortune magazine has touted water as the "best investment sector for the century." The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has said that "water is the last infrastructure frontier for private investors." The Toronto Globe & Mail has stated that "water is fast becoming a globalized corporate industry." This news should send shivers down the spine of any concerned American.

Currently, the privatized water market is led by two French multinational corporations, Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux (builders of the Suez Canal) and Veolia Environnement, though many other multinationals are also now in the market, including American companies such as General Electric and Bechtel.

In the United States, recent laws have paved the way for a larger private-sector presence in America's water supply. Whereas small or local public-sector operators, such as city or county utility companies, used to control the market, now the big players of world business are getting involved.

For example, Veolia (formerly owned by Vivendi) bought U.S. Filter Corporation for $6 billion, and it also owns a large portion of Air and Water Technologies. Suez once purchased two of the largest producers of water-treatment chemicals, Calgon and Nalco, and also owns United Water Resources. So much fuss was made about France's opposition to the war in Iraq, yet there was little or no public outcry over the selling of U.S. water companies to foreign interests.

Many people will argue that the privatization of water will not affect U.S. consumers, but the facts unfortunately say otherwise. When the French privatized their water services, customer rates went up 150 percent within a few years. In Britain, water corporations have had a terrible track record. In an eight-year period, from 1989 to 1997, four large corporations, including Wessex (a former subsidiary of Enron), were prosecuted 128 times for various infractions.

One of the main problems with water privatization is that the public no longer has the right to access information or data about water quality and standards. In 1998, the water supply of Sydney, Australia, currently controlled by Suez, was contaminated with cryptosordium and giardia, yet the public had not been informed when the parasites were first discovered.

When the government of Ontario, Canada, deregulated its water-protection infrastructure and privatized water-testing labs, the results were disastrous for many communities. In the small Canadian town of Walkerton, seven people died and more than 200 were sickened from drinking E. coli-contaminated water in 2000.

The situation is even worse in Third World nations, where large financial institutions such as the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank are actively promoting water privatization as a solution to the world's water problems. In many instances, the privatization of a nation's water supply is a requirement for debt relief or a loan. Out of 40 IMF loans that were granted in 2000, at least 12 were contingent upon water privatization.

The danger here is that when anything is privatized, it is then subject to pricing as decided by the open market. Many have argued that water is a basic human right, and if this is the case, as with all human rights, it should never be sold on the open market to the highest bidder. Otherwise, water will be subject to the same whims of business as any other commodity.

An energy crisis was bad enough — just imagine if the Enron scenario happened with water. In the words of a former director of Suez, "We are here to make money. Sooner or later the company that invests recoups its investment, which means the customer has to pay for it." These are not the people you want to be in control of your water.

Water corporations exist to make profits — not to preserve water's quality or affordability. Let's say they own all of the world's water, and then start selling it back to you in little plastic bottles. When the prices and the environmental costs of bottled water get too high, you may find yourself going to war over your water.

"The wars of the next century will be about water."

This is a quote from Ismail Serageldin, former vice president of the World Bank, in 1999. This is the same World Bank that encourages the privatization of the world's water supply. The same World Bank whose members have financial ties to multinational corporations such as General Electric and Enron.

These same multinational corporations also have stakes in the biggest industry of them all — defense and warfare. Indeed, it is a strange day when the same corporation that makes bombs and missiles also owns your water, an "industry" that putatively will be the major focus of this century's wars.

Some may argue that these companies are an essential part of national defense, and thus are protecting national interests by the strategic acquisition of the world's major water supplies. However, once a company owns a water supply, it could be in its best financial interest to make the water scarce and hard to afford. Creating a problem, then marketing a solution, is a very profitable business practice — not to mention the additional profits to be gained from defending the supply in a war.

History is rife with conflicts over one party or another's control of a limited resource.

Most people will agree that the driving economic force behind today's wars is oil. A war over water would be a hundred times worse. Oil is vastly different. No one puts a gun to your head and forces you to drive. No one makes you fill your tank. Gas and oil are ultimately luxuries. Water, however, is a necessity. Taking away your water is the same thing as putting a gun to your head. This is an unacceptable proposition.

If there is one cause in the whole world that crosses all social, national, racial and economic lines, it's water. This is the most important issue we will face in our lifetime.

Thankfully, there are solutions to the problem. The simplest way to start making a difference is to choose tap water over bottled. If the taste of your local water is unappealing, buy a filter for your tap, or invest the money you would spend on bottled water into public infrastructure or watershed protection. Nothing speaks louder than where you spend your dollar. Bottled water will only be produced if there is a demand for it.

If you want to do more than that, then tell your representatives that you will not accept the selling of American water to foreign, multinational or corporate interests. Support public-sector projects and programs that encourage and create long-term, sustainable water solutions. Get involved with groups such as The Blue Planet Project (www.blueplanetproject.net), which is actively finding ways to solve the world's looming water crisis.

And above all else, remember that it's not too late. Clean, affordable water is still a reality in this country. It is our patriotic duty as Americans to ensure that it stays that way.

Joshua Ortega is a Seattle author and former journalist. E-mail him at jnaortega@omegapp.com; his Web address is www.joshuaortega.com