When thirsty hits the stock exchange, it’s too late

If some enterprising children set up a drink stand on your street and charged a $1 for a glass of tap water, would you buy it? Most of us have paid…

If some enterprising children set up a drink stand on your street and charged a $1 for a glass of tap water, would you buy it?

Most of us have paid more than that for a bottle of water at the store.

Despite living in one of the most pristine places on earth, for some reason we’re drinking this expensive bottled stuff up… like it’s water.

The commodification of water — a finite but necessary substance for human life — is probably the most hideous example of the public being duped by multinational corporations.

And boy, do they know it.

It’s time we clued in to the scariest and fastest growing moneymaking scheme in human history.

Fortune magazine has proclaimed water “one of the world’s great business opportunities” — the petroleum of the 21st Century. It is also being called ‘blue gold.’

Bottled water is the fastest growing beverage sector in the world.

And while this trend continues to make billions of dollars for the private sector, one-fifth of the world’s population (more than a billion people) is without safe water to drink — and water on Earth is absolutely disappearing.

After polluting our lakes and rivers, cities around the world started relying on groundwater.

As a result, Mexico City, Bangkok and Beijing are literally sinking in on themselves, their weight giving in on a surface that an underground flow of water once supported.

The Yellow River in China and the Ganges in India are great rivers that no longer reach the ocean.

This has already happened to the Colorado River in the US and some fear it will happen to Canada’s St. Lawrence River.

China is actually considering moving its capital because of a water crisis.

So is Mexico.

California anticipates being out of water in twenty years.

And the Great Lakes shared between Canada and the United States are growing shallower by the day.

What does all this have to do with bottled water?

First, most Canadian bottled water distributors do not pay for the water they extract from aquifers and publicly funded water systems.

They just keep taking this depleting natural resource and bottling it up for profit.

Revenues for bottled water have risen 800 per cent in two decades.

According to the Canadian Food Bureau, consumption of bottled water in Canada is outpacing that of coffee, tea, apple juice, and milk.

European food giants Nestlé and Danone first supplied the niche markets of Europe with bottled water in the 1980s.

But it wasn’t until the 1990s that it became a hot commodity here. 

When soft drinks were getting a bum rap for their contributions to obesity, Pepsi and Coca-Cola saw an opportunity to fill an anticipated profit gap with juices and water.

Their entry into the bottled water market was much easier than their European counterparts’ because they already had the bottling plants.

And Pepsi and Coke got a toehold with access to publicly built, maintained, and funded water systems.

The result is two of the best-selling brands of single-serve bottled water in North America: Aquafina and Dasani.

Both of these are nothing more than tap water taken from municipal supplies that is reprocessed and marked up for resale.

Tony Clarke, director of the Polaris Institute and author of Inside the Bottle: An Exposé of the Bottled Water Industry, illustrates the bottled water industry scam like this:

“To get an idea of how much this water is marked up, compare 1.5 litres of New York City tap water (often flaunted as some of the cleanest water in North America) and the same quantity of Dasani. New York tap rings in at about 1/100th of a penny. A bottle of Dasani, however, costs around $1.20.”

Clarke warns that the propaganda that we have come to accept as innocent product marketing is threatening to change the world’s attitude about water — at great cost to the human race.

“The more we hear it, the more we come to believe that bottled water is a superior product.

The more we accept that clean water is a luxury, rather than a right, the more we are willing to pay for it,” he says.

The second reason we should be worried about the commodification of water is that Canada is teetering on the edge of privatization acceptance in that debate. There have already been several examples of private sewage service contracts (with disastrous results in Hamilton, Ontario).

And there is pressure from the United States to sell our water.

While water was spared as a tradable item in the North American Free Trade Agreement, some activists fear loopholes will allow it, and that the only way to avoid them is for Canada to break away from NAFTA once and for all.

The United Nations is shying away from calling water a “human right” and instead is calling it a “need.”

Many fear that the next logical step is for water to become a commodity on the stock exchange.

Meanwhile, in the Third World, the arguments for privatizing are much more life threatening.

And in many cases, a private company operating on a 20-to-30-year contract provides much more stability than what new governments coming in every few years have been able to provide, especially where there is corruption or war, or simply poor management.

However, when a private, faceless company is put in charge of water, who is responsible for the health of those who can’t afford its prices and instead turn to a cholera-infested river, as is happening in South Africa?

It is never the company.

Bolivia had its eight-day ‘water war’ in April, 2000, over the issue of privatization.

But there will be others, probably world wars eventually, over this ‘blue gold’ that most of us don’t even consider precious… not yet.

Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.

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