Challenging Corporate Control of Water

Asserting Access to Water as a Fundamental Human Right

November 17, 2008
Blue Planet Project/Council of Canadians, Food and Water Watch, India Resource Center and Indigenous Environmental Network

On December 2nd and 3rd, 2008, the City of San Francisco will be the site of the conference, "Corporate Water Footprinting: Towards a Sustainable Water Strategy," where international business representatives will discuss their use of water, and ostensibly, outline water conservation strategies.

A conference geared towards sustainable use of water is indeed welcome, but having the largest water abusers in charge is a clear conflict of interest.

Access to water is a fundamental human right, and without water, life is unsustainable.

With more than a billion people - about one in six - lacking access to safe drinking water, and climate change further depleting freshwater resources, it is imperative that the international community act urgently to meet the growing challenge of providing access to water to everyone.

However, the upcoming corporate conference is not a genuine attempt to address the global water crisis or meet the water needs of the world.

It is an attempt by the very corporations responsible for the water crisis to increase their markets and profits by creating a false image of themselves as water sustainers.

According to The Economist magazine, "Five big food and beverage giants-Nestlé, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and Danone-consume almost 575 billion litres of water a year, enough to satisfy the daily water needs of every person on the planet."

Given the central role of water-intensive companies in the conference - Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Nestlé Waters, MillerCoors, Intel, Dean Foods, General Electric, ConAgra Foods - and the glaring absence of perspectives from those without access to water - it is clear that the conference is designed to cloak the practices of these very companies that have, in many cases, led to water scarcity and water contamination resulting in the denial of people's fundamental right to water.

Many of the participating companies are not only water intensive, but water abusive.

Coca-Cola, for example, uses over 300 billion liters of water annually - a gigantic amount by any measure. But the real abuse lies in the fact that they convert two-thirds of the freshwater they use into wastewater, globally. In India, where Coca-Cola is the target of formidable community-led campaigns for creating water shortages and polluting groundwater and soil, the corporation has located many of its bottling plants in drought prone areas - and destroyed the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands.

For its part, Nestlé Waters' has placed a full ten percent of its factories in extremely water-stressed areas. Along with Coca-Cola, Pepsico, and others, Nestle has pursued an aggressive and misleading campaign to market bottled water, which, more often than not, comes straight from the public faucet. While most of Nestlé's bottled water brands come from groundwater sources, not all do. The company has aggressively promoted its PureLife brand, which comes mostly from purified municipal water sources. Of Nestlé Waters' $3.57 billion in U.S. sales in 2006, the PureLife brand accounted for $1.17 billion. Marked up a thousand times its cost at the tap, bottled water is a true consumer rip-off. Add to this the environmental cost of plastics used in the bottled water industry (more than 1.5 million tons), and the climate costs of trucking the bottles everywhere, and you have the picture of an industry whose environmental footprint is disturbingly excessive and altogether unnecessary.

Dean Foods' record on water quality is equally troubling. In the late 1990s, Dean Foods was found guilty of nearly 2,000 violations of the Clean Water Act and fined $4 million for repeatedly discharging milk solids and other pollutants into public water sources. Dean Foods failed to address the violations for six years in order to reap higher profits.

In addition to obscuring the records of the world's biggest water profiteers, the conference appears to be part of a larger strategy to promote water privatization. "Corporate Water Footprinting" is endorsed by the International Private Water Association which works to privatize water resources by advocating "the private sector as a viable partner to governments."

Providing access to water - a fundamental human right - cannot be ensured by privatizing water and submitting our vital resource to the whims of the market.

Lest we need a reminder, over 3 billion people - nearly half the world - live on less than US$ 2.50 a day; commodification of water literally means that a substantial part of the world - particularly the poor and the marginalized - will be unable to afford water.

Privatizing water will boost corporate profits, while hampering efforts to provide access to water for all. Selling water for profit will not ensure water for all any more than a conference led by corporate water profiteers will yield sustainable solutions to the global water crisis.

The focus must be on strengthening public institutions so that they do what they are supposed to do - deliver a public good to the public at large.

We reject the "Corporate Water Footprinting" conference as yet another public relations exercise to expand the market share and profits of the very corporations responsible for the global water crisis.

We call on the United Nations and all concerned governments to come together in a global water summit to advance positive solutions towards a just and sustainable water future. Water is part of the commons, a human right and a public trust. The fora where these critical discussions take place should also be spaces free from private control and interests; this negatively distorts the outcomes.

We call for A UN Water Summit in 2010 at the midpoint of the 'International Decade for Action Water for Life 2005-2015 and we will be bringing this call to the unaccountable, private-sector controlled World Water Forum to highlight the urgent need for action by the UN and national governments.

Please join us in challenging the corporate agenda of water privatization and asserting access to water as a fundamental human right. Please send organizational endorsements of this statement to jconant(AT)fwwatch.org or info(AT)IndiaResource.org

We are also organizing a counter-conference in San Francisco on December 2, 2008. Join us. Please contact us for more information - jconant(AT)fwwatch.org or info(AT)IndiaResource.org

Statement developed by Blue Planet Project/Council of Canadians, Food and Water Watch, India Resource Center and Indigenous Environmental Network.

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