12.16.2008

thinking about water

Tony Clarke is the director of the Polaris Institute, the author of Inside The Bottle, an Exposé of the Bottled Water Industry, and a leader in the fight against the bottled-water industry - which means the fight for safe, publicly-available water worldwide. This week, he wrote this in the Toronto Star.
Toronto's decision last week to ban the sale and distribution of bottled water on city premises was a watershed moment for water justice advocates the world over. What was truly significant about Toronto's action was not that it banned an environmentally destructive product, but that it included a commitment to ensuring access to tap water in all city facilities.

Toronto is now the largest city in the world to pass such far-reaching regulations controlling the distribution of bottled water on municipal property and promoting the use of publicly delivered tap water. Other Canadian and American municipalities have enacted policies encouraging the consumption of tap water and limiting the distribution of bottled water using taxpayer money, but none as large as Toronto has taken such a comprehensive approach.

Toronto's action is in many ways the result of a diverse North American public campaign that has successfully raised awareness about bottled water as an unnecessary and wasteful product when the majority of people in Canada and the United States have access to clean drinking water from the tap.

. . . .

In the days leading up to the Toronto vote, city councillors faced a barrage of lobbying from the bottled water industry. These frantic attempts to defeat the resolution continued over the two days of debates when the industry brought a battery of lobbyists, corporate executives and industry associations into the council chamber to influence the vote. Representatives from the Canadian Bottled Water Association, Refreshments Canada and Nestlé Waters, along with their hired lobbyists from the Sussex Strategy Group and Argyle Communications, intensively lobbied councillors during the entire six-hour debate. However, their high-priced strategy ultimately failed to influence elected officials, who voted with a two-thirds majority to ban bottled water and reinvest in the public delivery of drinking water.

For many, Toronto has now become the champion of the "Back to the Tap" municipal movement in Canada. To date, this movement has already seen 17 municipalities from five provinces ban the bottle. With 45 others indicating an interest to follow suit, Toronto's leadership will no doubt inspire more municipalities to stand up and speak out in support of public water. . . . [Full essay here.]

This got me thinking.

Although I'm aware of the global fight against water privatization, and I see it as a profoundly important - and enraging - issue, I only know the vague outlines. I'm familiar with the water protests that have rocked many countries, especially the protests in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

I know that Canada has a full 20% of the world's total freshwater resources, and I know about the fight to protect Canada's water, spearheaded by groups like the Council of Canadians. (In case you missed it, Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, recently was appointed to the United Nations as Senior Advisor on Water Issues.)

So, as I said, I'm aware of this, but like many important issues, it hovers in the margins of my attention. I haven't read about it depth or in detail.

In 2006, we were in Peru, where tap water is not drinkable. Peruvians with money have water purifiers in their home; the majority boils water before using it. Tourists buy bottled water. Buy and buy and buy.

If you're camping, you can boil water, but for most visitors, there's no choice. The tourist season - the non-rainy season - is warm, you need to drink, and you can't drink water from the tap. Everywhere you turn, women are selling bottled water. Every time you board a bus, or a train, or take a taxi, or walk to a site, or step into a plaza, there are women or children selling bottles of water.

Tourism is Peru's third-largest industry. According to Wikipedia, tourism is the most rapidly growing industry in Peru, growing 25% annually over the past five years, and growing faster in Peru than in any other South American country. A lot of people are drinking a lot of bottled water.

And - except for one snack bar in Machu Picchu which sells water in glass bottles - all the bottles are plastic. And plastic is not recycled.

Glass is recycled. In a country with so much poverty, there's no need for mandatory recycling. No one throws out anything that can be re-used. People scavenge for broken or discarded glass, and bring it to used-glass shops for spare change. But plastic is tossed in the trash.

The whole time we were in Peru, and long after we returned, I kept thinking, where is all this plastic going?

And I often wondered, why can't - why won't - a country provide safe drinking water to all its people? We were there just before an important election, and I saw banners reading "Agua Potable Para Todos" - Drinkable Water For All - but I assumed it was an empty slogan.

I wondered, does the bottled-water industry have a hand in this?

I confess that's as far as I got. Now I'd like to learn more. Clarke's Inside The Bottle seems like a good place to start, as does the book Bottlemania - How Water Went on Sale and We Bought It, by Elizabeth Royte.

* * * *

Tangentially on the subject of Peru, just a few weeks ago, there were protests in Lima against Peruvian president Alan Garcia and the Resident, who was in the country for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. Earlier this year, when Canada signed a free-trade agreement with Peru, a progressive Canadian blogger asked sarcastically, What does Canada want, reduced admission to Macchu Pichu?

I was a bit horrified that anyone would so ignorantly dismiss another country's economic issues. A scant knowledge of world resources should provide an answer. Canada: mining industry. South America: mines.

6 comments:

James said...

Bottled water is an incredibly profitable scam. Most of the time, they fill the bottles from the local municipal supply and sell it to you for dozens of times what they paid for it in the first place.

Though I admit, I do occasionally buy a bottle of water. If I'm out cyclingand run short, I will cough up for one. I try to avoid getting into that situation, though.

I wonder if the Peruvian government could get away with starting its own "bottled water" business, selling bottles of water at cost -- with a deposit to encourage return and recycling. That may be more affordable than actually building proper municipal water supplies everywhere. Sort of like how cell phones are turning out to be more cost-effective for developing nations than land-lines, since it costs so much to run the cables.

L-girl said...

Oh, I definitely buy bottled water sometimes. There are times when it's unavoidable, as water is all I drink (except for coffee, beer and wine!). But when I do buy a bottle, I save the empty and re-fill and re-use it as many times as possible.

I wonder if the Peruvian government could get away with starting its own "bottled water" business, selling bottles of water at cost -- with a deposit to encourage return and recycling.

I'm kind of assuming that they're in bed with the bottled-water industry, although I have no evidence of that because I haven't researched it.

Also, I'm not sure plastic recycling facilities exist there.

It would be a big mountain to climb, but by no means insurmountable.

James said...

But when I do buy a bottle, I save the empty and re-fill and re-use it as many times as possible.

In the summer, we keep a small flat of water bottles in the car for the dogs. We bought the original bottles a year ago June.

I'm kind of assuming that [the Peruvian government is] in bed with the bottled-water industry, although I have no evidence of that because I haven't researched it.

Could be. It could also be that the bottled water companies are sufficient economic clout in the country that Peru can't afford to cross them, which isn't quite the same thing.

Also, I'm not sure plastic recycling facilities exist there.

Possibly not, but it may well be cheaper to construct a few of those than to create water purification stations all around the country.

On the other hand, small-scale, self-contained water purification systems -- the type that can fit on a truck -- are becoming much more effective and affordable, so that may be the way to go.

L-girl said...

Safe drinking water would certainly be the best thing. It doesn't appear anyone is working on that.

It could also be that the bottled water companies are sufficient economic clout in the country that Peru can't afford to cross them, which isn't quite the same thing.

It's close enough.

Justin said...

Actually it's interesting that you mention that 20% figure. In terms of actual renewal water Canada has a much lower figure (I've seen as low as 6-8%).

Thanks for your comments, I'm actually doing research on this issue and you provided links to some sites I wasn't aware of.

I'll be back to this site in the future

L-girl said...

Actually it's interesting that you mention that 20% figure. In terms of actual renewal water Canada has a much lower figure (I've seen as low as 6-8%).

From the link above:

"Canada has 7 percent of the world's renewable supply of freshwater and 20 percent of the world's total freshwater resources (including waters captured in glaciers and the polar ice cap)."

Hope that helps!