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Who controls what we drink? Corporate water comes to (and from) San Francisco
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Nube's remarks tied together the tensions of control and revolt, democracy and privatization, ecological balance and human need — all enormous issues, all related to water and water scarcity, which the Worldwatch Institute has called "the most under-appreciated global environmental challenge of our time."

BASIC NEED, INFINITE MARKET

Water is a basic human need, perhaps even more important than clean air, food, and shelter. People will never strike against water and stop drinking.

And that means, from a capitalistic point of view, it's a perfect, nearly infinite market. "As water analysts note, water is hot not only because of the growing need for clean water but because demand is never affected by inflation, recession, interest rates or changing tastes," wrote Maude Barlow in her 2007 book Blue Covenant.

If scarcity drives price, anyone with a stake in the water industry stands to gain from an increasingly water-stressed world. As Barlow also reported, "In 1990, about 51 million people got their water from private companies, according to water analysts. That figure is now more than 300 million." By controlling the resource and choosing when and if they engage with the public it allows some of the biggest water abusers to set the terms of a critical ongoing debate.

The fact that humans need water raises important questions: should water be classified as a basic human right available to everyone? Is water part of the commons? If so, should corporations be allowed to control the taps or bottle it, mark up the price, and sell it for profit?

Not much polling has been done on people's opinions of water, but during 35 informal on-the-street interviews conducted by the Guardian, 31 people said it is a basic human right. The other four said it was subject to the laws of supply and demand.

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and Barlow, who has been appointed special advisor on water to the UN, will be addressing the General Assembly on the fact that water is still missing from the original 30 Articles.

"The reason that water was not included in the original 30 Articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that no one at that time could conceive there would be a problem with water," Barlow told the Guardian. "It's only in the last 10 years that the concept of water as a human right has come to the fore."

The problem has its roots in the inherent conflict between conservation and profit. Saving water is relatively cheap, but there's no money to be made by eliminating waste. Developing expensive new water sources, though, is a potential private gold mine.

As Barlow points out in her book, technology is becoming an integrated part of the solution to the water crisis. Desalination plants, water recycling facilities, and nanotechnology are all being thrown at the problem — in some cases before a full assessment of use and abuse has occurred.

While technological solutions may be warranted in some places, Barlow worries that relying on them bypasses any true attempts at efficiency and conservation. "I'm not going to say there's no place for water cleanup," she told the Guardian. "What I'm concerned about is we're going to put all the eggs in the cleanup basket and not nearly enough in the conservation and source protection basket. What I'm concerned about is the idea that technology will fix it. Meanwhile, don't stop polluting, don't stop the over-extraction, allow the commercial abuse of water, allow the agricultural abuse of water because what the heck, there's tons of money to be made cleaning it up.