Water is a human right yet millions of people in the developing world lack access to it. That’s in large part because the big corporations that control the water systems in many developing countries have turned water into a commodity, laments Sara Michel, interim regional animator of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP).
Michel said water bottlers like Nestle, Coke and Pepsi are among the main culprits because they buy the land where the water is, bottle the water and then sell it to those who can afford it.
“What does it have to do with us? We have to stand in solidarity against the commodification of water and that’s basically the Development and Peace’s position that water should be accessible to all,” Michel said.
Water: A Human Right is the focus of the 2010 fall action campaign of CCODP.
“The right to food, like the right to water, has an important place in the pursuit of other rights beginning with the fundamental right to life,” Michel said.
”It’s therefore necessary to cultivate a public conscience that considers food and access to water as universal rights of all human beings without distinction or discrimination.”
Michel and Bob McKeon, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Social Justice, led a Lunch and Learn workshop on water at the Catholic Pastoral Centre Nov. 30.
“Catholic social teaching says water is a universal and inviolable human right. Everyone is to have access to clean drinking water. No water means no food and no life,” McKeon said at the workshop.
“Yet we know that water is not available for all. A billion people on the planet lack access to clean water. In Canada we often think that water is not an issue. But we know that it is for dozens of aboriginal communities who each year have (to drink) boiled water and lack access to clean, reliable and safe water.
“The Vatican documents are very clear: water is not simply another commodity to be bought and sold by private companies where whoever has money can afford to buy it and whoever is poor loses access to water.”
CCODP members campaigned in 2004-05 for public control of municipal water systems in the Global South. The privatization of these systems has been widely discredited. Yet the privatization of water continues in other forms.
Bottled water companies are a growing threat to the water sources of rural communities in the developing world. “Life depends on water, yet it is estimated that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will suffer from water scarcity.”
In 1989 the plastic water bottle appeared and Coke and Pepsi saw that a lot of money could be made out of this, noted Michel.
“The water bottles that we see — Aquafina and Dasani — are actually Coke and Pepsi products. Sales are increasing. Between 2009-13 sales of bottled water will double.”
Indonesia is the second largest market for bottled water in Asia and the seventh largest in the world. In 2004 Nestle and Coke joined forces and acquired 65 per cent of the shares of the second largest bottled water company in that country.
“The implications are that local people have less access to water; the ponds are disappearing and the land is too dry to plant. They are drilling for water deeper and deeper,” Michel said.
“So natural springs are being bought by bottled water companies and what’s interesting is that they put up fences and guard houses around these springs. That’s a potential for conflict.
“When public water decreases for people, what choices do they have? You don’t drink water or you drink bad water? We are seeing it with Haiti right now: cholera is on the rise.”
One litre of bottled water is about $1.25 to $3 on a good day, noted Michel. “To live on $1 or $2 a day how many people can afford that?”
It was only in July 2010 that the UN declared water as a basic human right and 21 countries, including Canada, abstained, the CCODP leader lamented. “It’s a great shame for a country that has 25 per cent of the world’s fresh water resources to not think of it as a basic human right.”
Michel and McKeon called on participants to stand in solidarity against the commodification of water by giving up bottled water.
“One in five Canadians drinks only bottled water,” Michel noted. “More bottled water is sold than coffee, tea, milk and juice in Canada. $1.1 billion was spent on bottled water in Canada in 2009.
“Between 2003 and 2008 the federal government spent $8.6 million on bottled water in facilities where public water was available.”
The use of bottled water is becoming increasingly normal for people but it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are some facts given by Michel, who said bottled water has higher rates of bacteria than tap water. There are also contaminants in the plastic.
A litre of bottled water can cost up to 2,000 times more than a litre of tap water, with 15 per cent of the price going to cover marketing costs.
Is bottled water environmentally friendly? “No because it takes three litres of water and a quarter litre of oil to make a single one-litre plastic bottle.”
What’s being done and what can we do?
“A lot,” Michel said. As of December 2009 almost 100 municipalities in Canada have imposed restrictions on bottled water sales.
In 2011 Toronto will go bottled water free. Nova Scotia’s provincial government has banned bottled water from all public provincial facilities.
Nine Canadian university campuses, but none in Alberta, are bottled water free.
In Edmonton, St. Michael/Resurrection Parish is a bottled water free parish. St. Theresa Parish is expected to go the same route soon. Michel and McKeon encouraged workshop participants to promote the campaign in their workplaces, schools and parishes.