One of the funniest scenes in the documentary, F.L.O.W. (For the Love of Water), was when they conducted an experiment at a fancy restaurant wherein they presented the diners a fancy "water menu." Of the different waters featured therein all of which cost some outageous price like $8. a bottle, one was "de l'eau du robinet." The diners having ordered this expensive bottled water then proceeded to comment approvingly on its aroma and bouquet. Unbeknownst to them, the waiter filled whichever bottle was ordered from a garden hose out in the back patio. As they say, the yoke was on them. The literal translation of de l'eau du robinet is "tap water." I guess these particular diners, despite their apparent sophistication, had limited knowledge of the French language.
The movie was a condemnation of the bottled water industry as well as being an inditement of the privatization of the water supply throughout the world instigated by the World Bank. Nestle, a transnational corporation, is pumping over half a million gallons a day out of an aquifer in Mecosta County, Michigan, bottling it in plastic bottles and selling it as its Ice Mountain brand.
The residents of Mecosta County and the surrounding areas in central Michigan regard water as central to their identity. They fish for trout and watch ospreys and eagles feeding in the streams. They spend warm days by the ponds and small lakes that dot the woodlands. And of course the Great Lakes, which hold a fifth of the world's fresh water, are a constant presence. So when a huge multinational bottled water company decided to move in and start pumping over half a million gallons of water a day out of the springs that feed their lakes and streams, the residents took it personally.
To meet the exponentially growing demand for bottled water, in the late '90s Perrier subsidiary Great Spring Waters of America sought to open a major pumping and bottling operation in the Midwest. First the company tried to set up shop in Adams County, Wisconsin, but they were driven away by intense opposition from residents and local government.
So in 2001 Perrier, which has since been bought by Nestle Waters North America, was welcomed with open arms by then-Michigan Gov. John Engler, who allowed the company to open up a plant for a licensing fee of less than $100 per year and offered millions in tax breaks to boot.
Construction started on the plant even before all the necessary permits had been obtained. For the past year and a half, the plant has been pumping 100 to 300 gallons per minute out of an aquifer on a hunting preserve in Mecosta County and piping the water 11 miles away to a bottling plant in Stanwood, where it is prepared for shipping and sale around the Midwest as Nestle's Ice Mountain brand.
Shortly after the pumping plan was announced, a grassroots movement of local residents and activists coalesced to oppose the plan, on the grounds that not only would the pumping have harmful effects on the environment and quality of life for residents, but it would also set a chilling precedent in selling off the area's natural resources to a multinational company.
The issue of water packaged in disposable plastic bottles and transported long distances raises ecological concerns. This water is indistinguishable from tap water in its purity and health values yet it is bottled in plastic that has been shown to be unsafe for human consumption due to the chemical BPA and the plastic does not biodegrade so it piles up in landfills. Energy is required to truck it which contributes to global warming. There is no oversight or testing of the industry to make sure the consumer is getting a high quality product.
The amount of fresh water falling on the earth in the form of rainfall per year is a constant which means that fresh water is a finite resource. Fresh water is renewable only by rainfall, at the rate of 40,000 to 50,000 cubic kilometres per year. Also the amount of water stored in aquifers is finite. As the earth's population grows, this finite resource has demands made upon it by an increasing population. At some point push has to come to shove except for the fact that the oceans provide an almost infinite resource which must be desalinated in order to be useful. One of the most promising methods of desalination is ship based and is being developed by a company called Water Standard. Water can also be recycled in other ways by processing waste water.
The World Bank has been on a campaign to privatize the world's water supply. Water then becomes a privately owned resource to be commodified, sold to the highest bidder and then packaged and sold to thirsty people for a profit.
The impacts of World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programs on countries in the Global South have been well-documented in the areas of health and education, food security and jobs. However, less is known about the impacts of the World Bank's latest obsession -- the privatization of water services. In country after country in recent years, the World Bank has been quietly imposing a for-profit system of water delivery, leaving millions of people without access to water.
The Bank is taking advantage of the "Washington Consensus" model of development now adopted by its donor countries and promoting the interests of a handful of transnational water corporations. Instead of using its massive funds to promote expertise in the public sector, thereby acknowledging that water is a human right and an essential public service, the Bank is forcing many countries to commodify their water resources and put them on sale to the highest bidder.
There are ten major corporate players now delivering fresh water services for profit. Between them, the three biggest -- Suez and Vivendi [recently renamed Veolia Environment] of France and RWE-AG of Germany -- deliver water and wastewater services to almost 300 million customers in over 100 countries, and are in a race, along with the others such as Bouygues SAUR, Thames Water (owned by RWE) and Bechtel-United Utilities, to expand to every corner of the globe. Their growth is exponential; a decade ago, they serviced around 51 million people in just 12 countries. And, although less than 10 percent of the world's water systems are currently under private control, at the rate they are expanding, the top three alone will control over 70 percent of the water systems in Europe and North America in a decade.
The revenue growth of the big three has kept apace. Vivendi earned $5 billion a decade ago in its water-related revenues; by 2002, it had increased to over $12 billion. RWE, which moved into the world market with its acquisition of Britain's Thames Water, increased its water revenue a whopping 9,786 percent in 10 years. All three are among the top 100 corporations in the world; together their annual revenues in 2001 were almost $160 billion and growing at ten percent a year -- outpacing the economies of many of the countries in which they operate. They also employ more staff than most governments: Vivendi employs 295,000 worldwide; Suez employs 173,000.
Meanwhile, perhaps as many as a billion people have no clean drinking water. Many are not able to afford the water that privatized companies are selling so they have to revert to unclean water. In some parts of the world women carry water from creeks and rivers spending several hours each day just transporting water to their homes.
Is clean drinking water a public resource, part of the commons that should be supplied to everyone regardless of their ability to pay or should it be privatized, commodified, bottled and sold as any other commodity like oil, for instance?