Pandora's Bottle

How uncapping your water opens the floodgates to privatization

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The breaking news on bottled water suggests that it might not be the tall cool drink that ecofriendly, health-conscious consumers seek. Plastic bottles are piling up in landfills as billions of gallons of fossil fuels are used to ship the stuff worldwide. In the United States -- where half of Americans drink bottled water regularly, and one in six avoids the tap entirely -- consumers have been convinced that hitting the bottle is a healthy choice, even though the Environmental Protection Agency does a better job of monitoring what comes from home taps than the Food and Drug Administration does tracking water sold at the grocery store.

Less attention has been paid to another effect of branded water: It advances a corporate agenda to privatize public drinking supplies. 'Bottled water is getting people into the habit of paying an awful lot more for their drinking water,' says Tony Clarke, author of 'Inside the Bottle' (www.insidethebottle.org), a book-length expose of the industry published in 2005 by Canada's Polaris Institute and cited in Canadian Dimension (Jan./Feb. 2006). As much, in fact, as 10,000 times what they pay for tap water.

In 2003 the world's three largest for-profit water services corporations, France's Suez and Vivendi (now Veolia) and Germany's RWE-Thames, announced their goal to take control of 70 percent of U.S. and Canadian public water utilities within 10 years. By conditioning people to pay more for water than they do for gasoline, Clarke argues, the industry undermines confidence in public water utilities, setting the stage for privatization.

In communities that have privatized water services, prices have spiked and service often suffers. In 2003, after four years of rate hikes, dirty water, and service shutoffs, the mayor of Atlanta canceled the city's contract with Suez subsidiary United Water and announced that the government would resume running the system, and that it would be more efficient and reliable. In November, residents of Lexington, Kentucky, hope to pass a referendum that would reclaim public control of their privatized water utility, according to Stephanie Powell, an organizer with Green Corps, a national group assisting with the effort.

According to Clarke, the massive bottling operations of the leading water brands also amount to a form of de facto privatization. Municipal water utilities often charge bottlers preferential rates. And two of the most popular brands in the United States, Coca-Cola's Dasani and Pepsi's Aquafina, are nothing more than tap water, drawn from municipal supplies, filtered, and sold at a huge profit.

These sorts of tactics make for a thriving business: Consumers are spending more than $100 billion a year on bottled water, reports the Earth Policy Institute (www.earth-policy.org). At the same time, water shortages near bottling plants have been reported everywhere from villages in India to towns in Wisconsin, Texas, New Hampshire, and Florida, as companies extract water to sell elsewhere. This as the United Nations tries to convince its members to double their spending on water sanitation, to $30 billion annually, in order to halve the number of people who will go without safe drinking water by 2015.