Bottling It Up: The Voiceless Right to Water

It can seem as though there’s no escaping from water. After all, it covers over 2/3 of the surface of the planet, and comprises 60% of the human body. It boils freely in pan and kettle, and runs instantaneously at the twist of a tap. It fills lochs and lakes, and rushes in streams or rivers. And on a bleak February night in Scotland, it pours. Why, then, is water so scarce?

Water scarcity is most commonly associated with developing regions of the world receiving lower than average rainfall, such as Sub-Saharan Africa. And such a geographical focus is extremely justified, for the problem is an incredibly serious one; indeed, one in five people in the developing world lacks access to safe drinking water. Framing water scarcity as an unfortunate matter of geography and climate, however, blatantly ignores the deeply political thread running through the heart of the matter of access to and quality of water, in both the developed and the developing world. As such, shortfalls in provision, distribution inequality, and downright injustice all too often pass under the radar.

It is disturbing to discover that according to the US Constitution, ‘water’ as a necessity for human life simply does not exist. Moreover, it is less than a decade since, in 2010, the UN General Assembly finally voted in favour of the recognition of safe, clean drinking water as a fundamental human right. And while the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 concerns itself with standards, it does not account for accessibility, and nor does it address water as a human right. The loopholes created by this legal obscurity have allowed the right to water to be subtly eroded over decades by companies and governments without the best interests of their consumers and citizens at heart; not least, through privatisation and the bottled water industry.

Source: The National.

Privatisation is a central, hugely controversial element of the contest for water. Since the proliferation of neoliberal policies in 1970s America, for instance, the right to water has been placed (along with many other elements of basic living) at the jurisdiction of local government bodies and private companies. Concerns about these developments have been twofold: in the first instance, there is a financial dimension which has resulted in some communities being forced to pay extortionate amounts for the water to which they, as human beings, are in fact entitled. Flint, Michigan, has some of the highest water bills in America, with residents paying over $300 per month for government utilities – almost three times the national average – in 2015. Refusal, or more accurately, an inability to pay up, has resulted in whole communities facing the temporary termination of their water supplies, depriving them of their basic access to water. As a result of access to water increasingly becoming dependent upon on economic capital, inequalities are exacerbated as a human right is transformed into a commodity available only to those who can afford to purchase it. Inevitably, the most vulnerable groups are consequently the most severely affected, although rocketing water prices may leave as many as 1/3 of Americans struggling to pay for water within a decade.

A second pressing concern of water falling into private hands has been the neglect of the infrastructure in place to supply it. Many systems have not been updated since at least the post-war reconstruction era of the 1940s and ‘50s, if not before. In the American Water Works Association’s most recent report on the state of the water industry, respondents rated the ‘soundness’ of their water supply at just 4.3 out of 10, highlighting a lack of public trust in the safety and competency of local water provision, resulting in large part from the lack of a standardised national system across which quality can be carefully controlled and monitored. Drinking water is at risk of contamination from pesticides, fertilisers, and even drugs such as steroids, leached into streams and rivers through lax regulation enforcement at a local level. An historically neoliberal approach to water resource management has therefore undermined the status of water as a human right by allowing wealth and geographical location to determine who is granted access to a resource to which all should be entitled.

There is no small irony in the fact that Flint, forced to pay the highest rates, has been at the heart of a crisis involving lead contamination of its water resources. Local residents are paying extortionate amounts for a resource which they feel is entirely unsafe for anything, with one local resident commenting that she dared not even use it to water her plants. A 58% increase in the number of foetal deaths in the city has been strongly linked to elevated lead exposure, which can also cause seizures, hearing loss, and long-term neurological effects.

It is unsurprising that extensive fears surrounding the quality and contents of the water running from taps across America has resulted in consumers turning to bottled water instead. However, this is not a pattern which has been nationally confined, but has been reflected globally, with believed health benefits and a turn away from sugary drinks also featuring among the reasons why bottled water has in recent years become the world’s most widely purchased bottled drink. But while the water crisis in Flint has forced local residents into a reliance upon bottled water for everything, from washing their hands to keeping the dog hydrated, at an international level, drinking bottled rather than tap water is often a consumer choice, based on perceived health benefits, manipulatively identity-based marketing, and simply convenience. That bottled water is actually no healthier than that from the tap, and can also be subjected to lax monitoring of potentially harmful pollutants seems immaterial when encased in a psychological safety net of plastic.

Unfortunately, whilst posited as a solution to water crises, bottled water is in fact an enormous part of the problem. The huge TNCs which monopolise the bottled water industry have become adept at slipping in amidst the chaos to take advantage of contested water resources with thoughts of profit alone in mind. The virtually undisputed monopoly of the industry belongs to Nestlé, with over 90 bottling factories in 34 countries across the world, and overseeing nearly 80 brands of bottled water, including Vittel and San Pellegrino. But such corporations are inherently profit-driven and have been quick to take advantage of the disjointed, privatised water network system, using their immense legal and financial weight to force their way into some of the most vulnerable communities, most recently in the Osceola Township, Michigan. They make flimsy yet unfulfilled promises of new jobs and infrastructure, in order to take charge of their water resources which do not belong to them.

In the context of Nestlé’s bottled water Empire, it is possible to re-contextualise Flint to take into account the fact that, just a few miles down the road in the town of Evart, Nestlé has purchased the ‘right’ to bottle water resources at a rate of just $200 per year, to sell all over the world at prices equivalent to just $1; this is less than the rate which local residents pay for the water which they can neither drink nor make use of in any way. Moreover, Nestlé is not only selling the water resources so desperately needed by local people to countries where perfectly clean, safe water is reality available to consumers for free via their taps, including selling back to local residents what should be rightfully their own, but they are directly preventing a sustainable, long-term solution to the problems. It is estimated that using the correct additives to make Flint’s water safe would cost just $100 per day. And yet, as long as bottled water is presented as a ‘solution’ to the water crises in Flint and elsewhere, it is perceived that there is ‘no need’ to take the action which must take place in order to improve infrastructural facilities.

This is not to mention the environmental costs associated with bottled water. Whilst this might initially seem like a separate issue, water is in fact integral to the plastic-making process. It takes twice as much water to construct a bottle than can be seen to be contained within it. The recent outcry against single-use plastics in the media, particularly since the broadcast of the BBC’s Blue Planet II, has been a welcome development, but the problem is already well-advanced, with evidence that microplastics are beginning to enter the food chain and, crucially, our water. To this end, Nestlé may have made some seemingly bold recycling commitments over the past year. But how long will it be before their bottled water is advertised, seemingly without any sense of irony, as the ‘solution’ to the microplastics which may be beginning to enter our tap water, but will, of course, be entirely absent from their own? The solution ultimately can be found not from what is done with the end waste product, but by considering how to reduce the number plastic bottles being produced in the first instance.

So, the next time you’re on the brink of swiping through your daily bottle of water and placing it with some trepidation into the ‘bagging area’, think twice about how much it will cost. And that is, not exclusively in terms of its financial value, in pennies or Tesco Clubcard vouchers. The necessity to by a bottle of water every now and then need neither evolve into a habit, nor leave the consumer without any choices about where their water should be sourced from, and where their money will go. Nestlé Water’s chief sustainability officer, Nelson Switzer, admirably commented in a recent interview that ‘water belongs to no one’; the only misfortune, then, was his failure to realise that neither his company, nor any other, has the right to be treated as an exception. Ultimately, an infinite number of words can lament TNC exploitation of vulnerable human rights, but only the diligence of consumers can hope to deflate the self-confidence behind the powers seeking to silence our most understated human right to clean, safe, and readily available water.

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