World Water Day: Food Security, Privatization, Drought, and Plastic Bottles

Water justice means a lot of things to a lot of people. Depending on where you live, water rights may be an ongoing struggle. Finding free, clean drinking water in public can be a struggle. Even at home, fresh running water is not something everyone can take for granted. But should we be forced to buy water in bottles? Isn’t there another way?

Access to clean, potable water is a global issue. It’s also one that intersects with plastic pollution, environmental justice, and public health. As the planet heats up, water supplies are in jeopardy. Bottling companies try to leverage that fear, but in the process of providing drinking water, they also perpetuate the problem of plastic pollution.

As the world's population explodes, our food production also becomes ever more reliant on accessible water. Infrastructure for transporting water can make or break an agriculture-dependent region, especially when people living in the area are reliant on local crops for food. According to the United Nations Water reports, access to usable water is the key to food security for more than a billion people on the planet. 

Today, World Water Day, we’ll spend some time unpacking some of the issues that relate to water rights, food, the environment, and plastics. 

The effects of climate change are one way that water rights have come to the forefront in the last few decades. Droughts and megadroughts have always been an issue in some parts of the world, but for the first time, new regions are being hit. Just this week, shocking reports revealed that Mexico is expected to suffer from a years-long drought, and that entire cities in the southern U.S. state of Texas are about to run completely dry.

In public places, especially out in nature, the trade-off between hydration and single-use bottles has become hotly contested. Earlier this year, the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, USA, promised to phase out the sale of bottled water in the highly popular and highly trafficked reserve.

While critics shriek that park visitors will become dehydrated without Dasani bottles widely available, journalist Elizabeth Royte, the author of Bottlemania: How Water Went On Sale and Why We Bought It, points out that single-serving bottled water has only been widely available in the United States for the past 30 years. The Grand Canyon has long been a tourist destination. Obviously, before there were $2 disposable bottles of water, families happily toured the canyon gorge, toting canteens and avoiding heatstroke.

Today, even water in our homes is an issue fraught with complications. Water privatization has impacted dozens of communities around the globe, most notably in Global South cities like Cochamamba, Bolivia and Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania. Water privatization test cases have been carried out in other areas in the southern hemisphere, where the global media attention has been mitigated and corporate experiments can go relatively unchecked.

Royte has spent years reporting on the privatization and accessibility of water. In her recent reporting, she’s uncovered disparities in water-rich U.S. states like California, where some agricultural workers and farmers can’t drink their own nitrate-contaminated tap water. Meanwhile, in cities like San Francisco, urbanites enjoy premium tap water pumped in all the way from Yosemite National Park. “The hydrologically astute will note a striking disparity,” she writes. “While poor people in tiny towns drink groundwater that could be making them sick, pomegranates and almonds thrive on river water that is relatively pure.”

At an unprecedented rate, water is bottled up by private companies and sold for inflated prices. Instead of being a right, water is treated as a commodity. During a drought, it becomes more than a means of survival. It becomes a consumer item, available only to those who can afford it.

Bottled water is not only an expensive product in terms of its price tag. The waste from plastic water bottles is incalculable. Paradoxically, disposable plastics often end up contaminating water at the end of the life cycle as well, when plastic pollution is carried out to the ocean gyres and washes up on beaches.

On World Water Day, consider how water is consumed and available in your community. Do you have access to clean drinking water? Do you have water for your crops? Are you legally allowed to collect rainwater in your town? Does your municipal government control the water, or does a private corporation?

Photo via A6U571N on Flickr

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