Forget OPEC. The next cartel may export drinking water.
Already, companies are locking up resources and selling abroad.
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His Vancouver, British Columbia, company says it has acquired exclusive rights to 4.8 billion gallons of glacier water a year for 30 years under a license granted by Alaska and the city of Sitka. So far, Global has been selling premium bottled "glacier-fed water" - but is eyeing bulk shipments to Asia and the Middle East. In September, the company announced it had been approved to build a loading pier in Sitka, capable of handling 50,000-ton ships.Skip to next paragraph
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Bottled water presents another challenge. Business is booming: Sales have soared to $50 billion worldwide in the past decade and are still growing about 10 percent a year, estimates Peter Gleick, coauthor of "The World's Water," a biennial report released last month on the state of the world's fresh water. Just 10 nations guzzled nearly 29 billion gallons of bottled water in 2003, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp.
The irony, as Dr. Gleick sees it, is that much of the growth in bottled water sales is occurring in developing nations. China's consumption, for example, nearly quadrupled between 1997 and 2002 - to 2.6 billion gallons, according to Beverage Marketing estimates. For that same amount of money, clean tap water could be provided for all those who don't have it, he says.
Yet, there are signs that some developing nations may opt not to spend the millions of dollars required to build an infrastructure for fresh tap water, Gleick says.
Instead, they may rely on the private sector, which is bringing clean water more quickly to needy areas than public systems are - albeit at a much higher price. Lack of access to clean drinking water threatens the lives of some 35 million people in the coming decade, he adds.
"I'm less worried about a cartel situation, as we have with oil, than about local conflicts over private manipulation of resources," Gleick says. He points to disputes over groundwater, particularly in the United States, between bottled-water companies and local residents.
The bottled-water industry counters that it's being targeted unfairly. "Dr. Gleick's focus ... singles out the bottled-water industry from among the thousands of industrial water users for scrutiny," said Stephen Kay, vice president of the International Bottled Water Association, in a statement last month. "That will do nothing to protect and preserve renewable groundwater resources."
It's unlikely the controversy will go away soon. "Where water is in short supply, people are desperate and will do anything for it," says Barlow of the Council of Canadians. "So we see an evolving merging of different interests - bottled water companies, private municipal service providers, shipping companies, and pipeline companies will start moving water in bulk."
For these reasons Barlow's group, along with Public Citizen, the Washington-based advocacy group, and other environmental and nongovernmental organizations, are pushing the United Nations to designate access to water as a human right. That would help prevent price-gouging of the poor by for-profit entities, she says.