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Big Water's Boondoggle

Tomorrow, March 22, marks World Water Day. This year's theme, designated by the United Nations, is "Water and Culture." The hope is that the world's people will reflect on the cultural and sacred qualities of water -- from a baby's baptism to a ritual bath in the Ganges River -- as a reminder of its value in our lives.

But there's another water-related cultural trend that has gained near cult-status in the day-to-day lives of many Americans: bottled water.

Today, half of all Americans drink bottled water. One in six drink only bottled water. The bottled water industry has doubled in the United States in the last decade. Today, supplying water is a $400 billion business, already 30 percent larger than the pharmaceutical industry.

Bottled water may seem harmless, but this boom, which is no accident, is quite troubling. Bottled water is the most visible example of a global trend toward water as a privatized commodity -- rather than as a human right.

What's more, bottled water is often not what it's marketed to be. Beverage corporations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars promoting bottled water as "pure," "safe," "clean," "healthy" and superior to tap water, while many popular brands actually come from our public taps. A Natural Resources Defense Council study found that bottled water is no more "pure" or safe than tap water. In the case of some brand-name waters that contain harmful contaminants like arsenic, it can be even less safe. In 2004, half a million bottles of Dasani were recalled in Britain after they were found to contain unsafe levels of bromate, a cancer-causing chemical.

Today, bottled water is among the least regulated industries in the United States. Adding insult to injury is the astronomical markup to the consumer on each bottle of water. Ounce for ounce, bottled water is 240 to 10,000 times as expensive as tap water. Most branded bottled waters cost more than gasoline.

All of which is music to the ears of water industry honchos, who are currently attending their biggest international gathering, the World Water Forum. Sponsors of this year's event include Coke, which, along with Pepsi and Nestle, accounts for half the global bottled water (PDF) market. At the World Water Forum, Coke and other corporations will push for policies that could allow even greater profits from water, including privatizing municipal water systems.

Water should remain a public, common good, democratically owned and locally controlled. It should be protected as a fundamental human right under a global treaty similar to the one that now protects people in more than 120 countries from the deadly abuses of big tobacco corporations.

Today, over one billion people around the world do not have access to safe water to drink. And communities around the United States are fighting corporations trying to come in and bottle their water for selling elsewhere. If current trends continue, in less than 20 years, two-thirds of the world's people will not have access to enough water. This is by no means a done deal. Health, environment and human rights advocates and political leaders are working to prevent this public health disaster. It won't happen overnight. But it must begin with thinking outside the bottle.

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