The human right to water - Page 2

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

Showing images of African children swimming naked in a river, he stressed the frequently repeated statistic that once every 15 seconds, another child in the developing world perishes from waterborne illness.

To hear Bena tell it, PepsiCo is emerging as a corporate trailblazer in protecting people from such a fate. In addition to its conservation efforts, it has donated to an organization that provides microloans to families for small-scale water infrastructure projects, he said. And at the urging of one of its shareholders, it recently agreed to sign a commitment supporting "the human right to water."

But when asked whether PepsiCo, the parent company of Aquafina, has a strategy for reducing the widespread use of bottled water — a flashpoint for environmentalists because it taxes aquifers, requires extensive shipping, and uses tons of plastic to produce — Bena didn't have a straight answer. "We are evaluating it, but I can't tell you," he said. "The critics are certainly very strong, but we think that people, by and large, want the convenience that bottled water provides."

In San Francisco, some of the beverage companies' harshest critics organized a counter-conference to the 2008 Corporate Water Footprinting conference. This year, one of the counter-conference participants was seated on the same panel with Bena and the former Coca-Cola representative.

Mark Schlosberg, California director of Food & Water Watch, made it clear that he views the human right to water through a very different lens than the other panelists. "The 'human right to water' is not a concept for corporations to implement," Schlosberg said, relaying what was perhaps an unpopular message to a tough crowd. "Just as free speech is not a concept for corporations to implement. The human right to water is a concept which says that nobody should be denied access to clean water for basic human needs. It's not a question of whether or not a corporation wants to adhere to that. It's the responsibility of governments to create laws, and of corporations to follow laws. I don't think that the basic human right to water ... is alienable, just like certain constitutional rights are also inalienable and can't be contracted away."

Speaking by phone several days later from New Delhi, India, Amit Srivastava, executive director of the India Resource Center, explained his perspective on the human right to water: "For us, the right to water means the community has control over its water resources. It is our fundamental human right to live free of pollution of water." As for PepsiCo's efforts, "It sounds all good, but what is the reality on the ground?"

Srivastava, the driver behind the counter-conference to last year's Corporate Water Footprinting Conference, spends half the year in India working in rural agrarian villages, where he says the impacts of Coca-Cola's operations are hugely detrimental to people's interests. PepsiCo has caused its share problems in India too, Srivastava said.

"Seventy percent of Indians make a living with agriculture," he explained. "They rely on groundwater — the same groundwater Coca-Cola uses to meet its production needs." Tens of thousands of farmers have been affected by a dearth of water in communities where Coca-Cola plants are sited, he says, and many have also been adversely affected by water contamination linked to the manufacturing facilities. As water becomes scarce, crops dry out and women must walk farther away to haul fresh water back home.

On Nov. 30, Srivastava said the India Resource Center helped bring 1,000 people out to a rally against Coca-Cola.