Water is at the center of a major global dispute. While it’s a fundamental resource for sustaining life around the planet — something that should be afforded to all — there are corporations who control it for profit. Surprisingly, there’s a lot the average person doesn’t know about water and water usage around the world.
This March, the World Water Forum (WWF) was held in Brazil by the World Water Council, a body dominated by large companies like Ambev, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Danone, Monsanto and supported by the World Trade Organization. In practice, this event served as a large business meeting to support the privatization of water.
Meanwhile, access to a clean water supply is a major problem for poor communities around the world. Just a few kilometers away from the “corporate event,” the Alternative World Water Forum (AWWF) gathered approximately 7,000 participants from 170 countries and 183 organizations. The motto: “Water is a right, not a commodity” defends public control of clean water and places itself against the privatization of this resource. The stage of this debate was not chosen randomly. Latin America owns 15% of the entire freshwater reserve on the planet and Brazil sits atop that list.
It’s important to note that the commodification of water does not only occur with the control of river sources and underground reservoirs, which mainly concerns companies in the food and agriculture sectors. Corporations also have a desire to privatize water for sanitation as well as the energy sector. In this sense, the use of water also has a connection to the class condition. The poor take the dirty water and those who can afford to take the water that’s theoretically better.
According to data from the Brazilian Water Resources Forum (2011), 69% of water consumption in Brazil occurs in agricultural irrigation, 12% in animal production and 7% in industries, totaling 88% of water consumption in these productive sectors. In contrast, human consumption in rural and urban environments totals 12%, an average similar to the rest of the world.
It’s no coincidence that most of the world’s water consumption is in developed countries. Emerging or underdeveloped nations consume less because they have less access to water and lower intensity of economic practices. Only 3% of the water in the world is fresh, most of which is polluted and unfit for use. Meanwhile, we extract 15 times more water than what is actually absorbed by the Earth. The growing increase in consumption versus the availability of water is reinforced by the idea that the common person’s daily behavior — long showers, watering the lawn, washing your car — is to blame for these problems. Guilt is placed on the consumer, suggesting the solution is for him or her to change their behavior.
Of course, gross overuse by the average person isn’t great and needs to be changed, however, estimates show water isn’t consumed most by individuals in their households. The industrial sector, specifically agro-livestock and mining, are major culprits. The water used in agribusiness comes back with agrochemicals that poison other water sources while the water used for mining comes back with arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mercury and other toxic elements.
However, in order to change all this, we must first understand the root of the problem: economics. In the bottled water business, for example, a natural resource essential to life and therefore should be guaranteed to all, has been commodified as a for-profit product. Take the estimation that bottled water gets a 280,000 percent profit mark up over tap water, for example.
“There is a strong discourse that privatization is the great outlet, but this is not the lesson of experiences in other parts of the world. What is observed internationally is an inverse movement, with processes of reestablishing water and sewage services,” says Leo Heller of the United Nations. Research has shown that more and more cities, regions and countries are choosing to retake public control of water management. The reasons given are poor service quality, rising tariffs, lack of financial transparency, underinvestment, and difficulty in monitoring private operators. But the pursuit of profit should not be above social responsibilities and a company’s bottom line could not be worth more than thousands of lives.
This struggle is being incorporated by trade unions and social movements of all kinds, for it will not be long before people have to kill themselves to secure the precious liquid. A good example of this came from Cochabamba, Bolivia, where water activists led by union leader Oscar Oliveira forced the gigantic engineering company, Bechtel, to leave the country. They prevented the World Bank from imposing a privatization program that doubled the price of water to local users.
We could all start by avoiding waste and stop buying water in small bottles. A solitary protest will not solve our water problem, but when someone accepts the idea that buying water is natural, it becomes a habit that’s harder to break. The results of the most recent known study revealed that 90% of the bottled water brands that were analyzed are contaminated with traces of plastic. This conclusion led the World Health Organization to take a stand and review the potential risks to human health of drinking water contaminated with microplastics.
This debate helps understanding that the roots of our water problems will not be solved through simple individual tasks like fully closing the tap when brushing your teeth at night, nor will it be helped with the privatization of springs and rivers. The world’s water crisis is more complex, deserving actions that contest the greed of economic interests and state politics.