Water Ownership: Who Does Water Belong To?

Water

Isn’t water already everyone’s? Turns out, not quite.

Whilst there is a lot of water that’s accessible to the public, much is privatised, owned and bottled. We’ve come a long way since Perrier first cemented the moment when bottled water began its commercial dominance. But over time, private water ownership has come to represent a bit more than just bottling mineral or sparkling water for profit.

The privatization of water is often now the fruit of a deal between corporation and community – a deal whose trade-off relies on the rights of well or reservoir water getting privately bought out, with the promise of public benefits, including clean drinking water, better water management and even new jobs.

So with the goal often being to connect people with clean water, what are the actual consequences of water privatisation across the globe? And how does the fight for resources play out in reality?

Water privatization – where private corporations purchase water utilities and services – generally involves a clear process of commodity in which the delivery of water and wastewater services are provided to locals for a profit. Globally, the ten major corporate players who do this include Thames Water for the U.K., and RWE-AG for Germany.

But when it comes to the bottled water industry, the dynamics of water ownership become less clear cut – leading to community conflict that stems from problematic deals, and a negative social and environmental impact.

For Evart, a small American town in Michigan, these blurry lines are clear. As a provider of water for Nestlé, Evart serves as an example of a community-corporation agreement. The result of which, means Nestlé purchases and uses Evart’s water sources for private use – what some might recognise on the market today as Ice Mountain bottled water.

Challenges arise, however, within the terms of that deal. Having purchased rights to Evart’s water supply, Nestlé is free to pump out large amounts of water at a high volume – 250 gallons per minute, to be exact. And at a relatively cheap price: paying $200 a year to the community, Nestlé can pump 130 million gallons of water annually and sell that water for profit. This is all done in spite of the fact that unprecedented water pumping contributes to the degradation of Evart’s local wells, whilst also affecting the water supply actually available to locals. 

For some in the community, Nestlé’s promises of new factories in Evart and the fact that they bought the water in the first place, is enough of a positive. For others, Nestlé’s presence has sparked outrage within the Evart community, leading to some uniting as a non-profit organisation known as Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. 

“They’re taking the water, putting it in plastic bottles, selling it outside of the watershed and making a huge profit of water that doesn’t belong to them… the water belongs to the people.”

Peggy Case, president of the MCWC board of directors.

Evart isn’t the only city where questions of water ownership ethics arise. The same challenges have come to light in other parts of Michigan, and across the globe. And whilst some efforts have been made to invest in the local economy – as in Cuba, where Nestlé created a new factory that will employ over two hundred people by 2020 – critics argue that this might not be enough.

According to a report by Food and Water Watch, Nestlé, among other players, is one of the top bottled water companies in the United States that extracts hundreds of millions of gallons of water, usually for very low fees, to bottle and sell it for thousands of times more than the cost of tap water –often to the very community it bought the water from. 

Other companies dominating the still bottled water industry in the United States include Coca-Cola Co. (Dasani, Glaceau) and PepsiCo (Aquafina). 

And these companies also raise questions of water ownership ethics as they’re often, according to Food and Water Watch, bottling filtered municipal tap water. In fact, Coca-Cola Co. (Dasani) had to pull out of launching their bottled water in the UK after it was discovered that the water used was purified tap water, coming from a Thames Water source in Kent. And in 2007, PepsiCo (Aquafina) had to change its labels to make it clear that its water comes from the same source as tap water.

The rise in water as a commodity has other stark environmental and health consequences: namely, a sizable contribution to making single-use plastic bottles ubiquitous, and an emphasis on marketing pure water as both healthier than tap water, and healthy in general.

Are the benefits a pipe dream?

For some cities, privatising water might be necessary, as in Lagos, where water supplies are in grave need of investment; whether privately or publicly funded. Taps are often dry, with only 5% of people actually receiving water in their houses, forcing a lot of locals to rely on contaminated water supplies or bottled water.

But with locals fearing that what is widely seen as public supplies would be exploited for profit, it’s even harder to negotiate an agreement that effectively merges public interests with private. In fact, water is so much a sought-after commodity that Greece, Portugal and Italy were put under pressure to include their water in the bailout terms set by the European Commission. 

Privatising water might even be more prone to neglecting public interests. The U.K., whose water supply and extraction is entirely privatised, has resulted in problematic results. In 2017, for example, Thames Water – the largest water company in the U.K. – was fined £20m for releasing 1.9 billion liters of raw sewage into the River Thames. And there’s been suggestions of a deliberate misreporting of data by Southern Water as to their own sewage treatment levels. 

In Cape Town, a city whose 2017 water crisis has been well-documented, these larger questions of public or private water management are also raised. With reservoirs that were designed and operated primarily for urban use, the government initially allowed the agriculture industry considerable access to this water source. But this access was not reduced when drought hit Cape Town’s water supplies; resulting in a huge depletion of water, and a plan to shut off taps to four million residents. 

So the question remains as to whether the promised benefits of private water ownership would ever weigh up with the realities, especially as ownership of water is often synonymous with making water a commodity – where profit is the key goal.

Should water be owned?

The environmental, health and social problems of water ownership thus poses the question: should water even be owned? In New Zealand, for example, in 2017, the Whanganui river received the same rights as a human being, where it was named an ancestor of 140 years. Its subsequent status meant that if the river was subject to what is regarded as abuse or harm, this would be considered the same harm done to that of a tribe member. 

This law change gives an entirely new perspective on water ownership – one that recognises water not just as a valuable resource, but as a being that has customs and traditions. 

The same can be said for some holy rivers in India. The Ganges and Yamuna rivers were recognised as living entities, even citing Whanganui river as an example for granting these legal rights. 

But despite a proactive step to give rights, ownership is still a tricky situation that is dependent on many stakeholders. The Yamuna river is monitored by 22 sewage treatment plants in Delhi, meaning that ownership also shifts between these 22 spaces, and according to the individual measures they take (or don’t take) to protect the river.

And most significantly, the current dynamic between bottled water consumption and contaminated drinking water are, for now, closely connected. As Upmanu Lall, the director of the Columbia Water Center, has emphasised, in the U.S., an increase in bottled water sales correlates very strongly with drinking water violations reported by utilities to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Meaning that when it comes to contaminated drinking water, bottled water is very much considered one of the few short-term solutions, regardless of its environmental or social consequences.

In Berlin, global giant Tesla announced plans this year to construct a large Gigafactory, sparking fears of environmental mismanagement and the strain it could put on the local public drinking water supply. So with local water supplies still very much at risk of being seized by companies – whether by water corporations or otherwise – we can only presume that the corporation-community conflict will still remain unresolved for the time being.

And further, that the most important preoccupation should be the steps needed to be taken in order to hydrate everybody in a future-proof, holistic way, and not at the expense of frontline communities or the environment.

By James — Mar 31, 2020
The information contained in this article is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and should not be construed as health or nutritional advice.

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