A while ago I heard a story about a millionaire in Beijing who was selling air by the can. At first glance it seemed like a crude attempt to make a buck off of China’s terrible air pollution. How appalling would it be if some corporation somewhere began to sell clean air? Actually this has already started to happen; Vitality. However, Chen Guangbiao started this little scheme more as an act of protest than entrepreneurship. A clever attempt to point out that an environmental consciousness is a necessity in one of the most air polluted cities in China. If you have ever seen East-Asian tourists wearing surgical masks, you have only caught a glimpse of a fraction from the tip of the iceberg that is this problem. (Although, the practice likely originated as something to ward of germs, the trend grew recently to deal with air pollution). Originally I wanted to scream at these people when I saw them traveling, especially in the Alps. ‘This is the freshest air you could ever breathe, take that freaking mask off!’ I thought. Then I heard about Chen, I was frightened that any entity, be it man or corporate machine, could take an essential means to survival and turn it into a commodity. Then I read about Fryeburg, a town in my home state of Maine.
It turns out Nestle Waters, subsidiary of the world’s largest food and beverage company Swiss Nestle SA, bought a contract from Fryeburg Water Co. to use their spring for bottled water. Maine law states if you own the land the water is yours, making business more than profitable. The deal seemed fair, giving the small rural town a stable cash flow while retaining exclusive rights to the water well. However, opponents argued that the deal would not be good for residents in the long run. The advocacy group Food and Water Watch pointed out that profits were being given more value than public’s best interest.
After hearing complaints the town planning commission changed their minds, citing the negative impacts of pollution, noise, and traffic. Nestle sued and appealed and argued to the Maine Supreme Court that their right to grow market share superseded the town’s right of control. The following barrage of litigation brought concerned citizens into a debt of $20,000. Bruce McGlauflin, a lawyer argued that the law allows for “a supply of pure water for domestic and other uses” and doesn’t contain any provision for selling water as a commodity. In the end Nestle received a modified contract with an added provision that in cases of emergency supply could be reduced or cut for Poland Spring. A compromise at last, but somehow it seemed hollow. Nestle still got pretty much exactly what it had wanted in the first place, which was a new source for bottled water. The town however, received substantial debt from their legal battle with the multinational company. I found myself thinking, what bizarre form of democracy reduces a municipality to pay a fee just to be a part of the decision making process for one of their communities most valuable life giving resources. I could just taste the suffering from every sip when I was given a bottled water.
Today this topic may seem trivial but in the near future rights for clean usable water (and possibly even air) are poised to become more dominant issues. Soon a decision will be made, with or without the public input, as to whether access to water is a basic human right or if water is purely a commodity to be traded and bought. Over a third of the world’s population has difficulty getting access to water. If you thought this may be true but certainly not in the USA, think again. In Detroit water was more or less taken hostage from the public. Who controls these springs, wells, and other water sources may soon be able to hold any community at ransom for whatever price they decide. And who knows how soon it will be until the price doesn’t matter and a water supply for 7 Billion people just isn’t there anymore.
Denmark’s Aarhus University, Vermont Law School and the CNA Corporation, a nonprofit research and analysis organization has found that the world will face “insurmountable” water crises in less than three decades, especially if it does not move away from water-intensive power production. Growing water scarcity “means that we’ll have to decide where we spend our water in the future. Do we want to spend it on keeping the power plants going or as drinking water? We don’t have enough water to do both,” Sovacool said in the release. In the US and most industrial countries energy production is the biggest source of water consumption, even bigger than agriculture, researchers said. In 2005, 41 percent of all freshwater consumed in the U.S. was for thermoelectric cooling, according to the study. Water tables across the globe are lowering, aquifers are drying out and yet water has been turned into a product and an expendable energy resource. Now add to this situation a steadily increasing population and a climate that continues to be altered by this rise and you have an insanely dire scenario. Places in the world, which already struggle to gain access to clean water, are experiencing this water crisis first hand. This is especially true for areas suffering from a host of other factors besides access to water. If we continue to ignore the dilemma in these regions just because we can still buy a Poland Spring from the store it is going to put us in a dangerous situation. The red flags are waving fierce and yet the overall problem is still not getting the attention it so desperately deserves. It seems most people have just accepted the fact that they need to buy bottled water and cannot simply use their own tap. It is easier, more transportable, and fairly cheap, however it continues to aggravate the underlying problem that the public is not being guaranteed safe clean drinking water.
Recently more and more businesses are working together with the goal of using water as a product and not as a necessary public resource. All of this has happened despite a collection of water protection organizations best efforts. This commodification of water will most likely culminate a disadvantage to the public, but it does not have to. We just have to keep our eye on the ball. Now lets be realistic, no one could possibly come out and tell companies, especially in a free market, that they cannot use or sell water. There will always be a place for water in businesses but this needs to be done smarter. We owe a great deal of our social and technological progress to the use of water and this does not look like it will be changing anytime soon, as mentioned before a great deal of energy production depends on water. Better technological advances can be used and funded to help keep our water clean and drinkable, as well as lessen our use overall. Legislation can also be used to protect water sources, instead of allowing for polluting loopholes. The fight over how water is used does not need to be the public versus corporations. These battles normally don’t play out well. For decades lobbyists have spent millions of dollars trying to degrade the Clean Water Act protecting Americas aquifers and springs and have been successful. The public just doesn’t have the resources to protect their own resources. Corporate culture needs to be reigned in so that businesses can work together with customers and communities to make sure water can be used for sale and still have clean public access. Such a precious resource cannot be squabbled over in such a way without resulting in a negative outcome.
Many communities have actually praised practices of some companies handling of water; they are not the all-evil entities some would have us believe. They are capable of brining in much needed commerce and jobs to areas in desperate need. Companies who give back to the public, not in the form of bribery but in the form of mutual understanding and cooperation, can still do business while not putting the community itself at risk of losing clean and fair access. Respect of this natural resource by all parties should be the goal. While it might seem like a daunting task and counter to the corporate norm it is not impossible. However, it will require a much wider public consensus, for as long as some areas are offering up springs to be polluted for profit, these companies will continue to migrate their exploitation. Without a concentrated plan good water may become more and more scarce overtime. The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging it; the next step is cooperated action.
Just the other day people from a water protection organization stopped by my door asking for donations. While it was refreshing and uplifting to know that such an organization was getting its people out canvassing and spreading the word, my first thought brought me back to Fryeburg. Apparently the public has to pay out of pocket to have a say in how water is treated and used in this country. The only problem is our pockets are not as deep as the people polluting our water. We have the technology and the organization, there are numerous non-profits fighting for water rights and against pollution yet the problem remains. The paper tyranny is strong in the new corporate culture. If we don’t heavily encourage new protecting legislation through grassroots organization, if we can’t respect our most precious resource, we will be playing a global game of finders keepers, losers die of water poisoning and dehydration.
To help and learn more check out:
Food and Water Watch
Columbia Water Center
More Recently the dispute between Nestle and Fryeburg Water Co. has come to a head where the government will soon decide if the mega Multinational Company has more right than the local populace when it comes to water management.
Read about it;