The human right to water

Pub date December 16, 2009
WriterRebecca Bowe

At a recent San Francisco conference in a plush downtown hotel packed with big-business representatives, venture capitalists, and public relations practitioners, some insiders from high-profile multinational beverage corporations spoke about the moments they realized how crucial water is as a resource.

For Harry Ott, who formerly worked for the Coca-Cola Company, the epiphany struck in 1998 when he arrived at a Coke bottling plant in Darussalam, Tanzania for a routine inspection.

"When we walked into the plant … I noticed that there was no one there," Ott explained in a careful, Southern-accented voice. "And I said to the plant manager there, ‘Is it a holiday? Did I mess up in scheduling this?’ And he said, ‘No, we had a real severe outbreak of amoebic dysentery and all the employees have been affected by it.’ At that moment it really brought it home to me … every human should have access to clean water and sanitation to be able to maintain a healthy lifestyle."

But then Ott seemed to disavow this last statement, which implied support for what water rights activists have been pushing for: an inalienable right to clean drinking water, unmediated by corporations. As he told the crowd, "I don’t necessarily agree with the term ‘human right to water,’ because then the lawyers jump in here … and become rich off of this back-and-forth, knocking-heads process."

For corporations and advocacy groups alike, defining a human right to water is more than just a legal battle or academic exercise. As bottled-water companies weather mounting criticism for depleting aquifers to sustain profits and nongovernmental organizations point to the pitfalls of water privatization, control of the ultimate life-sustaining resource is becoming an increasingly important issue.

Widespread industrial contamination means less potable water to go around — particularly in developing countries, but in parts of California too — and intensifying drought due to climatic change means water scarcity is becoming a bigger problem. Water issues now represent a big financial risk for multinational companies and the top priority for communities that depend upon groundwater for their survival, so battle lines have been drawn for a struggle that is a matter of survival.

The second annual Corporate Water Footprinting conference, part of a corporate conference series called Action for Sustainable America, cost approximately $2,000 to attend. Unlike last year, when conference organizers denied press passes to both the Guardian and the San Francisco Chronicle, they opted to allow reporters in this time — perhaps as a show of goodwill after being publicly critiqued for a lack of transparency (see "Tap dreams," 12/10/08). The event was held at Le Meridien, a swank Financial District hotel, and was attended by businesspeople from a variety of high-profile companies.

Representatives from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestle portrayed their respective corporations as model stewards of the environment, the opposite of the bad raps they’ve been branded with by social justice advocates, who complain that these corporate entities are responsible for exacerbating water shortages in drought-prone areas. Rather than profit-driven behemoths sapping communities of a critical resource, the spokespeople described their companies as environmentally-minded leaders acutely aware of the widespread lack of access to clean water and actively trying to hatch solutions to alleviate it.

Dan Bena, director of sustainability, health, safety and environment for PepsiCo International, kicked off with a presentation about how an estimated 1.5 billion impoverished people living in developing countries worldwide lack access to safe drinking water. Showing images of African children swimming naked in a river, he stressed the frequently repeated statistic that once every 15 seconds, another child in the developing world perishes from waterborne illness.

To hear Bena tell it, PepsiCo is emerging as a corporate trailblazer in protecting people from such a fate. In addition to its conservation efforts, it has donated to an organization that provides microloans to families for small-scale water infrastructure projects, he said. And at the urging of one of its shareholders, it recently agreed to sign a commitment supporting "the human right to water."

But when asked whether PepsiCo, the parent company of Aquafina, has a strategy for reducing the widespread use of bottled water — a flashpoint for environmentalists because it taxes aquifers, requires extensive shipping, and uses tons of plastic to produce — Bena didn’t have a straight answer. "We are evaluating it, but I can’t tell you," he said. "The critics are certainly very strong, but we think that people, by and large, want the convenience that bottled water provides."

In San Francisco, some of the beverage companies’ harshest critics organized a counter-conference to the 2008 Corporate Water Footprinting conference. This year, one of the counter-conference participants was seated on the same panel with Bena and the former Coca-Cola representative.

Mark Schlosberg, California director of Food & Water Watch, made it clear that he views the human right to water through a very different lens than the other panelists. "The ‘human right to water’ is not a concept for corporations to implement," Schlosberg said, relaying what was perhaps an unpopular message to a tough crowd. "Just as free speech is not a concept for corporations to implement. The human right to water is a concept which says that nobody should be denied access to clean water for basic human needs. It’s not a question of whether or not a corporation wants to adhere to that. It’s the responsibility of governments to create laws, and of corporations to follow laws. I don’t think that the basic human right to water … is alienable, just like certain constitutional rights are also inalienable and can’t be contracted away."

Speaking by phone several days later from New Delhi, India, Amit Srivastava, executive director of the India Resource Center, explained his perspective on the human right to water: "For us, the right to water means the community has control over its water resources. It is our fundamental human right to live free of pollution of water." As for PepsiCo’s efforts, "It sounds all good, but what is the reality on the ground?"

Srivastava, the driver behind the counter-conference to last year’s Corporate Water Footprinting Conference, spends half the year in India working in rural agrarian villages, where he says the impacts of Coca-Cola’s operations are hugely detrimental to people’s interests. PepsiCo has caused its share problems in India too, Srivastava said.

"Seventy percent of Indians make a living with agriculture," he explained. "They rely on groundwater — the same groundwater Coca-Cola uses to meet its production needs." Tens of thousands of farmers have been affected by a dearth of water in communities where Coca-Cola plants are sited, he says, and many have also been adversely affected by water contamination linked to the manufacturing facilities. As water becomes scarce, crops dry out and women must walk farther away to haul fresh water back home.

On Nov. 30, Srivastava said the India Resource Center helped bring 1,000 people out to a rally against Coca-Cola. "We’ve launched an international campaign to hold Coca-Cola accountable," he said, explaining that the goal is to "apply market pressure for the abuses they continue to commit in India."

Of particular concern is the village of Kala Dera, located in an area that was identified as a water-stressed region more than a decade ago, Srivastava said. Nonetheless, the construction of a new Coke bottling plant forged ahead there in 2000. A severe drought plagued the region this year, and Kala Dera experienced the sharpest drop in groundwater levels ever recorded, according to Srivastava. "When the rains didn’t come, the crops failed, and there was a sharp increase in the use of groundwater," he said. "For all its talk, Coca-Cola continued to mine for water, even as the community did not have ready access."

According to Denise Knight, a Coca-Cola Company representative who spoke at the Corporate Water Footprinting Conference, the multinational giant uses a total of 313 billion liters of water annually to produce 129 billion liters of soft drinks, juice, water, and other beverages.

Knight said Coca-Cola is committed to "replenish" the places it operates by returning the equivalent of the water it uses to communities and water bodies. Trumpeting a splashy green catchphrase, "Water Neutrality," Knight acknowledged that the term itself might be somewhat misleading because, "as our business grows, no matter how efficient we are, we’ll still use more water." This program essentially consists of making it a goal to live up to its self-guided wastewater treatment standards (wastewater is treated in 80 percent of its 1,000 facilities, Knight noted), stepping up conservation efforts and funding small-scale projects like rainwater harvesting.

Knight couched it in terms of fiduciary responsibility: in the past decade, Coca-Cola’s Securities and Exchange Commission filings have listed water shortages and poor water quality as financial risks to company profits. A third area of risk for the company is public perception, an uphill battle in India.

Srivastava summed up his opinion of Coca-Cola’s "Water Neutrality" pitch as "hogwash." In reality, the company is extracting clean, drinkable water from poor communities that need it, leaving behind processed wastewater that people can’t drink and calling it "neutral."
"It really is lies dreamed up by their PR department," he said. "They’re trying to suggest that Coca-Cola has no impact whatsoever on water resources. This is outrageous."
Srivastava said the conference is essentially a scam. "We see the Corporate Water Footprinting conference as nothing more than a greenwashing effort by companies that are the biggest abusers of water. We see it as just you guys in suits and ties. The communities that are suffering as a result, their voices are never there."