Water and Life – Social over Private Enterprise
It has been said that bottled water is one of the largest and most obvious corporate scams in history. Companies are taking something that literally falls from the sky and selling it to the masses at massive mark-ups. In the developed world, it isn’t any healthier or safer than regular tap water, but is successful mainly due to its marketing and convenience.
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In the USA, 1 billion bottles of water are consumed each week, resulting in $1 billion worth of waste plastic each year. With a little forward planning, the world could drastically reduce this unnecessary production, transportation and waste with reusable bottles and filters, where needed. The water with which we wash ourselves and our possessions is good enough to drink and certainly a basic human right, right?
Well, no actually, says the chairman of the Nestlé Group and 27th largest economy in the world, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe. According to him, water should be privatised ‘just like any other foodstuff’. Apparently, we need to be made aware that water ‘has its price’, though he offers no clear proposal on what to do about those among us who would not be able to afford privatised water.
I find this way of thinking disturbing, especially from someone so influential. According to Wikipedia, roughly 60% of an adult’s body weight is water. It is something we all consume and must continue to consume to survive. To deny the right to water as a basic and universal right is to deny the right to life – unless, of course, you can afford it.
Water privatisation has been tried before in South America. In Chile, often touted as a ‘success story’, it has led to protests alongside rates hikes of up to 200% in some places. Most infamously, it was attempted in the city of Cochabamba, in Bolivia. There, the ownership of water as a natural resource was surrendered to private companies so completely that a city resident would require a permit to collect the water dripping off their own roof. Soon after privatisation, many local residents found themselves paying more for water than for food. As areas of the city had their supply shut off due to non-payment, demonstrations began which left 8 dead and hundreds injured. Eventually Aguas del Tunari, the corporation responsible, was forced to hand control of water back to the government.
Let’s look at this another way. We are all consumers of another basic and important raw material – air. At the expense of oxygen, we produce carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) with every breath, contributing ever-so-slightly to global warming. Should we be taxed for this privilege, lest we forget its ‘price’? And would you deny someone the right to breathe if they could not afford it? When the alternative to payment is death, there is no market, only exploitation. And developing countries with underdeveloped or unsanitary water systems are ripe for exploitation.
The poor cannot survive in such a marketplace for one simple reason. As Brabeck-Letmathe himself puts it, “The biggest social responsibility of any CEO is to maintain and ensure the successful and profitable future of his enterprise.” Often the cost of this ‘social’ responsibility is the disregard of others. In this respect, Nestlé’s track record is deplorable, both in their bottled water production and other serious issues.
But this doesn’t mean water supply should be left only to governments. As the global demand for water continues to grow, there is an alternative to private corporations with inward-looking aims such as the Nestlé Group. Social enterprises are business-model organisations for which profit is secondary to sustainable and positive social impact, and many are now focussing on water supply. They provide a beacon of hope for water-supply’s seemingly stormy future. Here are some examples:
- The Sarvajal project in India takes a community-sensitive, flexible approach to providing safe drinking water
- Water for Humans is a USA-based project aimed at ‘bringing clean drinking water technology to the developing world’
- Ideas at Work boasts a return of‘US$1.91 of experienced additional social value for every US$1 invested’ providing clean and safe drinking wells to Cambodians
Water is everyone’s right, and no-one else’s.