The human right to water

Corporate conference conveys concern, but activists decry the exploitation of dwindling fresh water supplies

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.