THOMAS KOSTIGEN'S ETHICS MONITOR
Unhealthy thirst for profit
Commentary: Water, water, everywhere, but so is the need to curb speculators
By Thomas Kostigen, MarketWatch
Last update: 7:40 p.m. EDT June 26, 2008
SANTA MONICA, Calif. (MarketWatch) -- A majority of U.S. mayors voted to stop paying for bottled water with taxpayers' money. Instead, they are opting to use tap water at city meetings and for city employees.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom introduced the idea at the U.S. Conference of Mayors that took place earlier this week in Miami, and it was quickly embraced by others.
To be sure, the beverage industry isn't happy about the move. "A few mayors have chosen sound-bite environmentalism over sound public policy in their zeal to appease liberal activist groups that are pedaling misinformation about bottled water," the Associated Press quoted Kevin Keane, a senior vice president of the industry's American Beverage Association, as saying.
But the mayors' move is smart. About 25% of bottled water comes from municipal sources anyway -- the same municipal sources that provide tap water. They also regulate and monitor water quality more regularly, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Moreover, considering that municipal sources are often city sources of water supply, why should these municipalities pay for their own water along with the $70 million that Corporate Accountability International estimates it costs to dispose of the plastic bottles every year?
Tap the tap
I salute the U.S. Conference of Mayors for its action and think others should enact similar measures. Many restaurants have banned serving bottled water altogether, and offer tap only.
It isn't so much the water that is the problem with bottled water, it's the plastic waste. We in the U.S. consume 81 million plastic bottles per day, according to the Container Recycling Institute. With less than one-third of these bottles getting recycled, that leaves a lot of waste. And plastics don't biodegrade.
Now while I say that water use isn't so much the problem with bottled water, it's a growing one -- both in terms of tapping supplies as well as in precedent.
The $15 billion-plus bottled-water industry has grown out of nothing over the last couple of decades. The water used to supply it amounts to far less than 1% of supply. However, the idea that water itself can be owned is disturbing.
We can only survive about three days without water. Like air, it should be made available to us as part of what many organizations call the "commons." We don't pay for air, why water?
The amount of private water providers has grown more than 100-fold since 1990 and they now supply about 10% of the world's population, according to water activist Maude Barlow, founder of the Blue Planet Project. And water ownership is growing with people, and investors seeing it as a ripe commodity.
T. Boone Pickens, the famous oil investor, for example, is betting big on water, buying up rights in the Southwest.
I'm not saying that people shouldn't have the right to buy premium water (some wingnuts have opened oxygen bars after all), but there should be a limit on the amount of water profiteers can own, then let speculators have at it.
We need look no further than our food supply to see the dangers speculation has on prices -- and therefore those who cannot afford to pay; they starve.
We should set a water policy that assures people have ready access to it as part of their right to exist. Sure we trade taxes for rights all the time. And I think that is exactly the point of the U.S. mayors who voted to end taxpayer funding of bottled water: It's ours to begin with. Water should not be made into a total commodity. That would have life and death consequences, and markets don't care; they operate without conscience.