On March 21 — the eve of World Water Day — I had the great pleasure of speaking to a large and enthusiastic group of U of T students at an event organized by the Water Working Group. The event featured Dr. Romila Verma, a clean-water advocate from Brock, Debby Danard Wilson, an Anishinaabekwe PhD candidate at OISE, Anne Macdonald, the Director of Ancillary Services at U of T, and Anda Petro and Leanne Rasmussen of the Public Water Initiative here at U of T. The larger issue was the global water crisis, but the reason we came together was to support the call for a bottled water ban at the University of Toronto.

All over North America, students and others are taking the pledge to go bottled water free. To date, 76 municipalities, 4 municipal associations — including the Federation of Canadian Municipalities — 8 school boards, and 21 campuses in Canada have either banned bottled water or established bottled water-free zones. Bottled water sales are down as a result, and a new awareness of the importance of public water is growing.

The bottled water industry is big business. The big four — Coke, Pepsi, Danone and Nestlé — have annual profits of $1.5 billion. It is a highly polluting and toxic industry, with many billions of plastic bottles left behind in landfills, rivers, forests, and oceans every year. Worldwide, 90 per cent of these bottles are not recycled. It also takes large amounts of oil to produce the plastic water bottles and the process of manufacturing and exporting them produces trillions of kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions every year.
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Because the industry needs plants at the site, the effect on local watersheds is often devastating and communities from India to Ontario are fighting for the very survival of their local water sources. Nor is bottled water as safe as the industry claims. Bottled water is considered a low risk food product by the federal government and tested infrequently. Many studies have found traces of dangerous toxins in ordinary brands of bottled water. Tap water, on the other hand, is tested every few minutes in municipalities in Canada and is much safer to drink on a day to day basis. Bottled water is also many hundreds of times more expensive than tap water and much of it (Coke’s Dasani and Nestle’s Aquafina) is tap water already purified and paid for by taxpayers’ dollars.

Perhaps the biggest concern about bottled water, however, is that it sets the stage for other forms of water commodification. When people make the decision to use bottled water, they often abandon any interest in what comes out of their taps. This can easily lead to a disinclination to pay taxes to keep source water safe and improve infrastructure to ensure safe supplies of public water for everyone. So the bottled water struggle is about more than bottled water per se. It has become a flashpoint in the larger question of who controls water in a world of diminishing supplies and who decides access, and under what conditions.

It is now clear that we are a planet running out of clean water. Modern people currently see water as a resource for our comfort, convenience and profit, not as the essential element in a living ecosystem. So we pollute, mismanage and displace water, moving it from where we can access it, dumping it as waste in the oceans, growing crops in deserts, and sending it out of watersheds in the form of virtual water exports to promote global trade. A recent study coordinated by the World Bank predicted that by 2030, global demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 per cent — a stunning figure foreshadowing terrible human suffering.

All over the world, private interests are moving in to claim water sources for private profit, claiming that water is a just a commodity, like Coca Cola or running shoes, to be put on the open market for sale. Large private utilities like Suez and Veolia, with the backing of the World Bank, run for-profit water services in the global South, denying water to those who cannot afford their high tariffs. Some countries are converting their water licence systems to private property, allowing the actual trade in water and the hoarding of water by the wealthy. Hedge funds and large countries running out of water are buying up land and water in poor countries to hold for future use, creating a whole new form of colonialism.

I believe that water is a common heritage, a public trust and a human right and that no one should be allowed to appropriate it for profit while others go without. That does not mean I support a free-for-all; a well-managed public trust is used more sustainably and shared more equitably than a system based on sheer might.

That is why the campaign to have U of T adopt a bottled water ban is so important. This is a very big, powerful and highly respected institution, and a statement from the university leadership that it supports the struggle for the human right to water by banning the sale of bottled water on campus, would be a significant milestone in the search for global water justice.

Maude Barlow is the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and served as Senior Advisor on Water to the 63rd President of the United Nations General Assembly.

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