Forget OPEC. The next cartel may export drinking water.

Already, companies are locking up resources and selling abroad.

Some call him crazy, others, a genius - but if Terry Spragg is anything, he's a believer that filling up giant ocean-going bags with fresh water and towing them to water-poor regions can slake the thirst of nations and help deliver world peace.

If that seems far-fetched, consider that less than 2.5 percent of the world's water is fresh. That vital resource is threatened by pollution, waterborne disease, and shifts in rain patterns caused by global warming, recent studies show. All of which, in some eyes, leaves the world on the verge of a scramble by private companies and countries vying for rights to available water.

Forget OPEC. Some experts say the next cartel will be an organization of water-exporting countries. Others see more danger in local privatization of water, which could restrict access to the poor within nations.

"Water is blue gold, it's terribly precious," says Maude Barlow, who chairs for the Council of Canadians, an Ottawa-based citizens' watchdog. "Not too far in the future, we're going to see a move to surround and commodify the world's fresh water. Just as they've divvied up the world's oil, in the coming century there's going to be a grab."

Signs of corporate interest are already popping up. Pipelines for bulk water shipments are reported under consideration between Scotland and water-short England. Similar plans exist for Turkey to pipe water to central Europe and markets in Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, and Malta, Ms. Barlow says.

Mr. Spragg's water bags are also gaining attention. The California entrepreneur is trying to persuade the White House to broker a Middle East peace deal by first filling 20 or 30 "Spragg bags" with fresh water in Turkey and floating them to Palestinians and Israelis. He claims the cost to transport them a few hundred miles would be less than a penny a gallon.

It's not as wild-eyed as it sounds. In the late 1990s, Aquarius Water Transportation became the first company to tow bags of fresh water for export, delivering commercial bulk quantities to the Greek Islands. In 2000, another company, Nordic Water Supply, began using 5 million gallon bags - 10 times as big as the original Aquarius containers - to float water from Turkey to northern Cyprus.

Turkey also seems willing to sell water to Israel, and the two are debating price and delivery methods.

"Water is a critical issue over there," Spragg says. "If these two warring groups see those big water bags sitting off their coast, they'll see they're going to be water independent. It would be a huge thing for them."

Other exporters are using more conventional transport.

"It is impossible to overestimate the importance of pure water supply," said A. Fred Paley, president of Global H2O Resources, in a statement. "Many communities in over 50 counties throughout the world are suffering needlessly because water is either insufficient or polluted or may not exist at all."

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.

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.

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