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Companies proclaim water the next oil in a rush to turn resources into profit

 

Glacial Water

Clear, pure glacial water: something corporations would like to harness to drive profits. Photograph: Alamy

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Companies proclaim water the next oil in a rush to turn resources into profit” was written by Suzanne McGee, for theguardian.com on Sunday 27th July 2014 15.30 UTC

“Is now the time to buy water?” enquired the email that showed up in my inbox earlier this week.

Its authors weren’t worrying about my dehydration levels. Rather, they were urging me to think of water in quite a new way: as a commodity to invest in.

Making money from water? Is this what Wall Street wants next?

After spending nearly 30 years of my life writing about business and finance, including several years dedicated to the commodities market, the idea of treating water as a pure commodity – something to be bought and sold on the open market by those in quest of a profit rather than trying to deliver it to their fellow citizens as a public service – made me pause.

Sure, I’ve grown up surrounded by bottled mineral water – Evian, Volvic, Perrier, Pellegrino and even more chi-chi brands – but that has always existed alongside a robust municipal water system that delivers clean water to whatever home I’m occupying. All it takes is turning a tap. The cost of that water is fractions of a penny compared to designer bottled water.

This summer, however, myriad business forces are combining to remind us that fresh water isn’t necessarily or automatically a free resource. It could all too easily end up becoming just another economic commodity.

At the forefront of this firestorm is Peter Brabeck, chairman and former CEO of Nestle.

In his view, citizens don’t have an automatic right to more than the water they require for mere “survival”, unless they can afford to pay for it. For context, the World Health Organization sets such “survival” consumption levels at a minimum of 20 liters a day for basic hygiene and food hygiene – higher, if you add laundry and bathing. If you’re reading this in the United States, the odds are that flushing your toilet consumes 50 liters of water a day.

Brabeck is right to argue that we risk depleting the world’s supply of fresh water irresponsibly through careless and thoughtless consumption of an apparently free resource. How many lush golf courses should we be sustaining with millions of gallons of water in parts of the world that are naturally arid, like Arizona or southern California?

Bottled Water

What we need, suggest some companies, is more of this. Photograph: Alamy

And then there are the bizarre mixed messages that some California residents are getting: don’t water your lawns in the state’s long-running drought that has depleted its aquifers. On the other hand, some are also being warned they’ll be fined if they don’t keep their lawns and neighborhoods looking nice.

But Brabeck probably isn’t the best standard-bearer for the cause of responsible water management, by any stretch of the imagination.

Consider the fact that as the drought has worsened, Nestle’s Nestle Waters North Americas Inc division – the largest bottled water company in the country – has continued to pump water from an aquifer near Palm Springs, California, thanks to its partnership with the Morongo Band of Mission Indians. Their joint venture, bottling water from a spring on land owned by the band in Millard Canyon, has another advantage: since the Morongo are considered a sovereign nation, no one needs to report exactly how much water is being drawn from the aquifer.

 

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