Is Water a Human Right?
When drought brought a critical shortage of water to Kerala, India, anti-globalization activists placed part of the blame on Coca-Cola, which operated a plant there. Critics contended that Coca-Cola failed to involve the local community in its plans and built a substantial global movement against water privatization, employing the tactic of “brand-jacking” of the world’s No. 1 brand – Coke -- to make their point.
Today, Coke’s Kerala plant is closed – a casualty of the global pressure placed on the company. But the campaign against corporate water has only grown stronger. Today, the focus is on bottled water, which critics point to as a wasteful, expensive example of water privatization – companies taking public water, repackaging it, and selling it back to us for a profit.
But the water wars have just begun. Bottled water may be today’s popular target. But activists are beginning to look beyond bottled water, setting their sites on much bigger objectives. At stake, they believe, is whether water is recognized as a basic human right, or becomes simply another commodity controlled by giant corporations.
Consider the following facts:
- Bottled water represents a tiny fraction of the total water supply across the globe – less than half of one percent.
- A plastic bottle of water, nevertheless, consumes 2,000 times the amount of energy than a glass of tap water.
- Thirty-six different U.S. states will experience local or regional water shortages over the next five years.
- 1 out of 6 people around the globe do not have adequate potable water.
Wars have literally been fought over water for more than 5,000 years. As far back as 539 BC, Cyrus invaded Babylon by diverting a river above the city, allowing troops to march along the dry riverbed. More recently, at least 40 people died in 2006 in Kenya and Ethiopia due to small-scale clashes over water, livestock and grazing land.
Ronnie Cohen, senior water analyst with the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) sees more conflict and shortages of water throughout the U.S. in the near future. While there is a perception that these sorts of issues are generally limited to the arid Southwest, the threat of water scarcity is widespread. “Water is even more fundamental to life than oil. When people say water is the next oil, I think the analogy is referring to escalating levels of conflict. Oil has been the center of conflicts for centuries. Of course, there is also the link between water and energy. We use a tremendous amount of energy to extract and convey water.
“Water is not the next oil,” counters Patricia Jones, with UUCS. “This phraseis used bythe private sector,and NGOs, to express the importance of the issue. There are however,significantdifferences. The most obvious - there are no substitutes for H2O, as are found in alternative sources of energy. This is reflected in the fact that the legal framework at the international, national and local levelsthat regulates water has some similarities, but is very different from that which regulates minerals such as oil.There is no human right to oil.”
Whether water is the next oil or not, one thing is clear. The topic of delivering a reliable and safe drinking water is rising to the top of agendas of governments, business and communities. While water is compared to oil (as well as climate change) because of the scope of its impact, water also carries unique challenges. Climate change is a global issue, subject to global solutions. Water is a local issue – you can’t improve water in India by taking action in Kansas.
That said, there is growing evidence that climate change is speeding up the hydrologic cycle. What that means that the rate at which rain falls and evaporates is getting faster and faster, resulting in longer droughts and more intense periods of pouring rain. It is through water that most people will feel the impacts of climate change: rising sea levels, melting polar ice caps, more intense storms, droughts and floods. These natural phenomena forces – along with a growing political movement – have made the availability of fresh water a hot topic all across the globe, spurring new thinking on how to harmonize the seemingly disparate interests of corporation and community.
An impossible task? Perhaps. But signs of progress are starting to pop up in both the developed and developing world. More about these new developments in my next posting on this subject.