Privatizing a Basic Human Right: Water

by: Posted on: March 02, 2012

Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By Samuel Bliss

Editor’s Note: One of our young and empowered voices—Samuel Bliss—gives us a run down on the issue of bottled water in the Northwest. Even if we don’t want to admit it, the Northwest is not immune from large corporations acquiring rights to its water. This piece complements our previous piece “Bottle the Skagit River?”.

Sam Bliss is a junior studying Environmental Economics and Spanish at Western Washington University. He is a member of a team, along with fellow Students for Sustainable Water club members Anna Amundson and Julia Shure, which won a grant from the university’s Green Energy Fee fund to install water bottle filling stations on campus. The installation of these filtered-water dispensers was accompanied by a campaign to promote education and awareness regarding Bellingham’s municipal water source, Lake Whatcom, and the issues surrounding its maintenance and protection. Sam is an ardent activist for water as a human right rather than a for-profit commodity; he and his fellow club members are part of an ongoing crusade to ban the sale of bottled water at Western. Cycling, songwriting, reading, running, coffee-drinking, breathing, running, eating, singing, cooking, football, learning, laughing, cross-country skiing, crossword puzzles, yoga, and the guitar are among Sam’s many other passions.

The commoditization and privatization of water has taken off with the relatively new advent of bottled water. But why is this so bad?

Typically, the lofty price of bottled water is a good place to start. If you’re lucky enough to find a machine where you can still buy a 20-ounce bottle for one dollar, you’re paying 5 cents per ounce of liquid. Compare that to the price of gasoline: even for $3 per gallon of gas, each ounce costs just a fraction over 2 cents. Most municipal water, where bottled water companies like Dasani (Coca-Cola) and Aquafina (Pepsi) get their water, in contrast costs less than 1 cent per gallon. This creates an exorbitant profit margin that puts even oil companies to shame.

EartH2O, an Oregon bottled water company, is just one example of a company taking advantage of these huge revenue-to-cost discrepancies. EartH2O’s water comes from the same natural sources as the Opal Springs municipal water. Not only are they ripping off those who buy their water, they are selling a public resource to turn a private profit.

Nestlé Waters North America, a division of Switzerland-based Nestlé SA – the largest food-and-beverage company in the world – attempted to do the same thing in Enumclaw, Washington in 2008. The plan was to collect water from Boise Spring, a major water source for the city, and bottle it in a 250,000-square-foot plant nearby. Calculations done by the city concluded that with Nestlé taking it’s share, the public system would no longer be able to support new costumers by 2038. This concern was compounded with others such as the expected increase in truck traffic and the company’s business practices elsewhere; ultimately, the proposal was shot down by a 6-1 City Council vote before the details of the project had even been hashed out. Nestlé has a track record of using predatory tactics to obtain rights to pump public spring water at far below market prices.

In addition to being denied the right to bottle Enumclaw’s water, Nestlé has withdrawn proposed projects in Black Diamond and Orting, Washington for logistical reasons, according to company officials. The corporation continues to look for new sources in the Pacific Northwest, and has had its sights set on Cascade Locks, Oregon, in the Columbia River Gorge region, for quite some time now. Though the city’s leaders at first welcomed the proposal as an opportunity to provide a boost to their local economy through property tax collection and job creation, dissent (mostly from critics of Nestlé and of bottled water in general rather than from Cascade Locks community members) has held the plan at bay for several years now. The current state of the situation, according to The Sierra Club: “The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) holds the water rights for Oxbow Springs in the Columbia River Gorge, which it currently uses for a fish hatchery. To enable Nestlé to bottle and sell the spring water, ODFW has proposed creating a water exchange with the City of Cascade Locks: ODFW would get access to Cascade Locks’ municipal water [to use for its hatchery] and Cascade Locks would get access to the spring water which it would in turn sell to Nestlé [at the municipal water rate].” The Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) must approve this permit proposal, and has indicated it will make a decision on the permit in the next month or two.

Municipal water sources are tested for toxins and contaminants hundreds of times per month under the purview of the Environmental Protection Agency, and scores are made public in the Environmental Working Group’s National Tap Water Database. Bottled water, on the other hand, is in theory regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however the FDA does not have even one staff member fully designated to oversee the industry. About 60 to 70 percent of bottled water sold in the U.S. is not subject to any federal oversight because it is sold in the same state as it is bottled, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. This is because the FDA is responsible only for bottled water that is shipped across state boundaries. Most states claim to regulate this FDA oversight-exempt water, yet dedicate very few, if any, resources to this monitoring; more than 10 states do not supervise their intrastate bottled water at all.

Waste stands as another major effect of the consumption of bottled water; 1.5 million tons of plastic waste are created each year by bottled water. These plastic bottles are produced using up to 47 million gallons of oil, according to Food and Water Watch. Approximately 30 million of the 80 million single-serving water bottles consumed each day are simply thrown away, as reported by the 2009 feature-length documentary Tapped.

Plastic does not biodegrade, rather it photo-degrades. This means that it is broken into smaller and smaller pieces by light, until the fragments can be mistaken for plankton or other food by marine and avian life. Almost all plastics ever produced remain in existence.

Bottled water is only a small part of an infinitely more disturbing trend: the global shift toward the privatization of local freshwater supplies. The access to safe and affordable water is an undeniable right that must not be commoditized by multinational corporations buying up groundwater and distribution rights in an effort to take advantage of the fact that water is fast becoming the world’s most precious resource. No one should be profiting from water scarcity. Clean water shortages arise from the superabundance of pollution and the lack of adequate environmental protection, but corporate control is not the solution. Instead we must focus on new and innovative ways to conserve the clean water we still have and to purify the dirty water. Human ingenuity is the answer; it’s a resource that is often overlooked in our doomsday predictions.


Take action:

  • Sign Food and Water Watch’s Take Back the Tap Pledge.
  • Conserve water.
  • Stay on top of local water issues. Know where your municipal water comes from and be active in supporting protective measures.
  • Do all you can to protect our freshwater sources from profit-seeking corporations. Start by signing this petition, and/or this one to help keep Nestlé from building a bottling facility in the Columbia River Gorge.
  • Go one step further: contact Oregon Governor Kitzhaber today by calling his citizen comment line at 503-378-4582.


P.S. from the Editor:

Protecting our fresh drinking water will take political will and action. The first step is to understand the issues; the next step is up to you.

3 Responses to “Privatizing a Basic Human Right: Water”

  • This is a great commentary!! When will we, the consumers, start to dictate the dynamics of the marketplace? I bet the next hot commodity put on the shelves will be bottled air. An educated consumer will not fall prey to the manipulations of the institutions that try to sell us a commodity that is owned by the public domain. How absurd that we can be convinced to buy water in a bottle. What's next? Thank you for such a refreshing article!!
    by: abe Cohenon: Saturday 3rd of March 2012
  • 1- I think it would be interesting for RTD to have an article on what the people and city council of Enumclaw, Washington did in 2008 in order to keep their water from being bottled as a way to help towns facing the same challenges. 2- Awesome article: Clean water and access to water is something we often take for granted in the United States, and while we know that other countries do not have this blessing we should be educated on how privileged we are, and stop buying bottled water if we have access to clean water.
    by: Anna Bon: Monday 5th of March 2012
  • Excellent report. But why denigrate the wonderful tool called capitalism? To negate this form of capitalism just urge your following to put their lips to any local publicly provided drinking fountain.
    by: mike quannon: Tuesday 6th of March 2012

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