Commentary  The world’s water is being privatized

And it’s starting on your campus

Campaigns against bottled water on campuses across Canada are suffering from marketing fatigue: battles against Goliath beverage manufacturing and supply corporations such as Coke (Dasani) and Pepsi (Aquafina) are hard won, and as they drag on, support wanes. This is unfortunate because the sale of bottled water where safe, public, and free fresh water supplies could be built – or worse – are readily available, is not only highway robbery, it’s deeply damaging.

According to the World Health Organization, more than a billion people don’t have access to drinking water. As the global population grows, the problem worsens, and it is compounded by the creeping privatization of the world’s fresh water supply. The bottled water industry is a huge part of the problem, and it’s still growing.

The Polaris Institute puts it simply: “The marketing of bottled water, which the industry claims is a healthier, purer, and more convenient product, has led to a distrust of public tap water systems.” Not only is this bunk, the marketing strategy “sets the stage for water privatization.” The nature of the multinationals spearheading these initiatives means that our local consumption has global impact.

According to Food and Water Watch, “Despite the marketing, bottled water is not safer than tap water.” An independent test of ten types of bottled water found that they “contained 38 chemical pollutants, with an average of eight contaminants in each brand.” In fact, when bottled water is found to be clean it often comes from municipal tap water. Unlike bottled water sources, tap water is usually tested for pollutants on a daily basis.

In terms of consumption of bottled water, Canada was ranked 37th in the world in 2004. However, according to Statistics Canada, between 1998 and 2006, the bottled water industry has been growing by an average of about 5 per cent per year. But that growth rate is increasing: between 2005 and 2006, the increase in consumption was 18.1 per cent, to almost 2.2 billion litres, with an estimated production value of $708 million.

Although Infrastructure Canada claims we have “more than one-quarter of the world’s freshwater reserves,” paradoxically Statistics Canada reports that in 2006, our imports of bottled water began exceeding our exports. We are engaged in the global water trade by both exporting our water in bulk and importing the water of other nations. In the meantime, our water supply infrastructure is decaying.

So what’s the problem? According to Polaris, increased consumption of bottled water distracts from the need from the increased investment in safe public water services, ultimately “transferring public service costs over to the private sector.” This phenomenon is not restricted to “Banana Republics;” it’s happening right here in Canada.

Our government is systematically offloading to private industry its responsibility to provide clean water to us. In a 2006 letter, Maude Barlow, currently the national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, wrote that the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board invested $1 billion into Anglican Water, “one of the world’s largest private water companies,” and our government consistently opposes recognizing water as a human right.

This position, and its corollary – that water can and should be subject to privatization – is not only allowing Canada to help privatize and usurp foreign water supplies, it’s also destroying our domestic supply infrastructure. According to the Council of Canadians, “Decades of cuts in infrastructure funding, coupled with the downloading of several programs and services to municipal governments, have resulted in a ‘municipal infrastructure deficit,’ … [leaving communities] in desperate need of money to pay for water pipes and filtration systems.”

For Canadian students attending publicly funded educational institutions, the proof surrounds us. A 2008 survey by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Polaris Institute entitled, Corporate Initiatives on Campus: A 2008 Snapshot, paints the picture. While more than 90 per cent of respondents have reported that their campus has an exclusivity contract with Coke or Pepsi, they also report that water fountains are being removed, left unrepaired, blocked by vending machines, and not installed in new buildings. Cold water taps are also being taken out of washrooms.

This is serious: we’re talking about losing access to one of the most important substances on Earth. So, when you see organizing on campus that is asking you to stop buying bottled water, to demand access to drinkable tap water, or to oppose exclusivity contracts with beverage companies, don’t scoff – lend a hand. As an added bonus, remember this: safe, publicly sourced tap water costs one one-thousandth of poorly regulated, often contaminated bottled water.