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When it Comes to Water, Can Corporations and Community Really Coexist?

The latest fight between activists and companies such as Coke and Nestle is about who really owns water -- corporations or communities.

When drought brought a critical shortage of water to Kerala, India, anti-globalization activists placed part of the blame on Coca-Cola, which operated a plant there.

Critics contended that Coca-Cola failed to involve the local community in its plans, and the activists began building a substantial global movement against water privatization, employing the tactic of "brand-jacking" of the world's No. 1 brand -- Coke -- to make their point.

Coke's Kerala plant has since ceased operations, making it a casualty of the global pressure placed on the company. But the campaign against privatization of water resources by activist groups has only grown stronger on the campaign front.

Today, the focus is on bottled water, which critics point to as a wasteful, expensive example of water privatization -- companies taking public water, repackaging it and selling it back to us for a profit.

But the water wars have just begun. Bottled water may be today's popular target, but that battle has peaked. Now, activists are beginning to look beyond bottled water, setting their sights on much bigger objectives.

At stake, they believe, is whether water is recognized as a basic human right, or becomes simply another commodity controlled by giant corporations.

While the bottled-water controversy may have helped propel fresh water issues into the limelight internationally, the current hottest buzz phrase among water-policy-reform advocates, and a topic galvanizing the debate over privatization of water, is the wonky phrase "free prior informed consent" (FPIC).

Jonathan Kaledin, director of The Nature Conservancy's (TNC) global freshwater certification program, said: "Water has been so abundant. There has been an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude about it. As the risks of water shortages become more public, corporations that use a lot of water need to become more aware of the concept of FPIC."

In a nutshell, FPIC recognizes that communities have the right to self-determination. They have a right to give or withhold their consent for new production facilities that may impact local water supplies or prices.

From a legal point-of-view, FPIC is an evolving concept that is gaining wider acceptance by nongovernmental organizations, as well as a few private corporations. FPIC is now incorporated in some forms of international treaty law, especially when it comes to indigenous peoples and extractive industries such as oil and mining. What's new is that FPIC is now being applied to water.

In fall 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the principle of FPIC for development projects, and momentum is building globally toward establishing FPIC as a principle of customary international law. The two key challenges for FPIC is an apparent conflict with the sovereign rights of nations to exploit their own natural resources (as they deem fit), and a lack of clarity about how to implement FPIC.

Among the key issues yet to be resolved are:

  • How is "the community" defined? Is there a strict geographical limitation to "community," and are elected officials given greater or equal status to local citizens?
  • If there is a lack of consensus within the "community," what process validates any decision-making (i.e. majority vote of local governing body; a referendum?)
  • Absent a political process, what exactly represents an adequate level of consent?

David Shilling, a water expert with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (IRRC) argued that FPIC is quite important in order for government and companies to make deals, because it is at the community level where water impacts will be felt. He went on to say:

The community involved has to be part of that conversation. The underserved deserve a place at the table, too. And human rights -- not technical issues -- should be the focus. Otherwise, the corporation will not have a social license to operate. Unfortunately, companies and government have a hard time with this sort of thing. Need to put these issues about water into a larger context, a tangible framework to get a buy-in and to help elevate discussions to the level of community consent.