20 May, 2022


How Much Is That Bottle Of Water?

By Thahira Cader

Thahira Cader

Thahira Cader

“Water promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century: the precious commodity that determines the wealth of nations” -New York Press[i]

It is the 21stcentury and according to UNICEF statistics[ii] 783 million people do not have access to safe drinking water. Each day at least 5,000 children die from preventable water and sanitation-related diseases. The world is plummeting towards a situation of extreme water scarcity. Indeed, between now and 2025, it is expected that we will need 17% more water to produce food for the swelling populace of developing countries. Meanwhile, total water consumption will increase disproportionately by some 40%. In optimal conditions, the average human being can survive up to a maximum of six days without drinking water. The rising levels of pollution, steadily expanding populations and unprecedented climate change, however, have combined to make the conditions we thrive in far from optimal. The odds are daunting. And as we summersault into a future in which access to clean drinking water promises to be uncertain, new talking points are developing. Among the many intriguing questions that are being asked today, one, “Is drinking water a commodity or a human right?” takes centre stage.

The fundamental role played by water in the sustenance of all life forms is obvious: water is life. Thus, it is natural to assume that people shouldn’t have to pay a price for this basic right. Unfortunately, the real state of affairs is far from the ideal, which is that clean drinking water should not have to be bought under any circumstances.

The United Nations (UN) sustained a series of dialogues spanning multiple decades on this issue. The result was that binding resolutions were passed in 2010 declaring, “the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living and inextricably related to the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, as well as the right to life and human dignity.” [iii]  Water facilitates the provision of other fundamental human rights, thus to deprive people of access to clean water is to impose limitations on their right to live.

It is unfortunate, that we as human beings are not able to justly exercise our right to water. On the one hand, countries with greater wealth and access to water sources have the tendency to overuse, waste and pollute these bodies; while on the other, there are millions of people who are completely deprived of clean water. 85% of the world’s population lives in the driest regions of the world, among which are some of the poorest and most vulnerable African countries[iv].  Due to the varying degrees of access to clean water and the resultant water conflicts, the stage has been set on a global level for water to be viewed as a commodity – a scarce economic good that must be rationed – rather than a basic human right.

The commodification of water appears to have risen significantly in the 20th century, in line with mounting fears of water scarcity and environmental degradation. Moreover, the provision of water as a public good has been found to be inefficient and ineffective in certain circumstances, leaving people with no choice but to purchase water for consumption as they do other commodities. This transition, marked in the recent past, has its roots in the neoclassical idea of giving a good or service an economic value in order to prevent their exploitation. This new market approach governs water consumption in the contemporary world. As expected, however, the shift has sparked much controversy and debate among a wide range of stakeholders.

The wave of demonstrations, police violence and public uprising against water prices in Cochamba, Bolivia in the year 2000[v], suggests the potential extent to which violence may escalate if water is to be privatized and traded as a commodity rather than a public good. Yet, some critics like K. Bakker argue that trading water leads to a more efficient allocation of the scarce resource[vi]. However, the efficiency of these water markets and the impact they may have on both society and the environment can be questioned. The system undoubtedly has flaws; and this is further illustrated by self-interested profit makers, such as Nestle[vii], exploiting their powers to maximize their own gains from water selling. Nestlé’s marketing campaign targeted affluent Pakistanis in Lahore, with branded ‘Pure Life’ water which became a status symbol for the rich. The poor were exposed to the ill effects of consuming contaminated water and left to contend with the dilemma of dried up springs in their villages. What’s more, Nestle has bitten them directly by usurping the water supply and extracting water from two deep wells in Bhati Dilwan village. Thus, they too are forced to turn to bottled water. A similar story springs from Nigeria, where a single bottle of ‘Pure Brand’ is more expensive than the average daily income of a Nigerian citizen[viii]. In other words, “water has become the new oil”.[ix]

Sadly, many companies that privatize water are driven by the awareness that the rich will buy bottled water to stay in fashion, and the poor because they need to survive. Further support for the increasing consumerism of drinking water comes from a study released in 2011which was carried out by the Inter-American Development Bank showing that Mexicans used approximately 127 gallons of bottled water per person per year, the highest  in the world.[x] A grave repercussion of the water problem is the unfair choice that many underprivileged persons are forced to make (“to buy or not to buy?”), which is a consequence of the inverse relationship that exists between health and poverty for them.

To put a price on water for conservation and management purposes is understandable. To make a commodity the defining factor in whether a person lives or dies can be, and is, greatly disputed. Depriving a person of a basic right to life because they cannot pay for it is unethical on several levels.

Treating water as a commodity and the privatization of water will continue to yield negative effects, especially for the poor. Statistics imply that water as a commodity is, and will continue to be, manipulated by the rich, powerful or water abundant regions of the world. People living in the slums of Jakarta, Manila and Nairobi already pay 5 to 10 times more for water than those living in high-income areas in the same cities[xi]; a sum that is shockingly, even more than that paid by consumers in New York or London. Women in Africa prefer to walk long distances to fetch dirty water from rivers rather than to pay for clean water, while farmers in Asia will soon be unable to sustain their livelihoods if they do not receive state-funded irrigation. Thus, instead of moving progressively forward in a struggle for survival, the majority of the world’s population is being forced to step back.

While it is important to ponder over the debate on treating water as a commodity or a right, we must not shy away from asking whether water can be “owned” at all. The broader picture is that economic neo-liberalism has done a lot of damage to our commons, including water. In reality, water and property rights don’t mix. Rather than talking in the dualist language of “rights” vs. “commodity”, we ought to spell out our responsibilities. This is undeniable and should encourage us to seek a water-management regime around water as a commons (for humans as well as for other species in the biosphere), not as a commodity. Thinking about water as a commons is an important part of maintaining a stable and healthy environment for both humanity and biodiversity. Such an approach advocates sustainable consumption, a stable or reducing population, high levels of reuse and recycling and no net loss of soil or biodiversity. This requires a radical change in outlook and our consumption, our technology choices and our population numbers in order to live within the means of the planet. We must tackle all three if our children and grandchildren are to have a decent life.

*The ‘Reimagining’ series by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) is intended to be a forum to communicate diverse perspectives on development. CEPA is an independent, Sri Lankan think-tank promoting a better understanding of poverty related development issues. Thahira Cader is a guest contributor to the ongoing reimagining development series. Send your comments and responses to the article on this column via email:  info@cepa.lk 

[i] Barlow and Clarke. Blue Gold: The Fight to stop the Corporate theft of the world’s water, New York.  New York Press.

[iii]UN General Assembly Report, July 2010:  http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2010/ga10967.doc.htm

[vi] Bakker, K (2005). “Neoliberalizing nature? Market environmentalism in water supply in England and Wales.”. the Association of American Geographers. 3 95: 542–565.

[ix] Barlow and Clarke. Blue Gold: The Fight to stop the Corporate theft of the world’s water, New York.  New York Press.

[x] The New York Times: Bottle Water Habit keeps tight grip on Mexicans: by the Inter-American Development Bank found that Mexicans used about 127 gallons of bottled water per person a year,

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Congrats – a very good one on water problems of present day sl.

    I heard increasing numbers of fake companies just fill up the bottles with river/polloted water today in SL and are brought to the markets. brownish sediments visible give the feeling that water cant be use for drinking. Water had been the most cheapest food item of the man and animals. However, to this day, to see that no respective law ordinance available yet to punish illegal entreprenurs is a great missing; with over 0.5Mio Rajarata young farmers becoming dialyse patients day to other. Hope the man behaving like the god of poor folks (atleast restrict for his popular rhetorics) will shine a light on health/food/control authorities to react without further delay. Many in EU countries have special laws (Germany -LMBG -Wasserverordnung (ordinance use of water), Switzerland-LMBG wasserveordnung) regarding the use of drinking water, as I add this, yesterday, I heard TV news reporting that Minneriya lake is becoming highly contaminated – making poor people´s skin sick wish not to get them creating melanomas(skin cancers), in the absence of attention of authorities.

  • 0

    I would suggest that the author read the short essay “The Law” by Frederic Bastiat. It is freely available in translation on the internet. Maybe after she can listen to a few speeches by Dr. Ron Paul (ex US presidential candidate) on youtube.

    Maybe then will she realize, if she has the humility and guts to do so, how much damage this article can cause, and how much she can wrong those who are truly in need of that precious commodity that is water.

  • 1

    Come to Rathupaswala.
    We will give you hot Bullets for pure water.
    Or instead you can choose white van treatment too.

  • 0

    hmm, everyone doing a lil research on the internet seems to be an advocate… with Authority to speak on the subjects.NOT knowing FACT from Fiction…. TO MOST who do such research.. WIKIPEDIA is the Encyclopedia…lil do they know ITS….FLAWED…. and ANYONE can make additions to whats in there…

    • 1

      Are you discouraging this writer? Come on Edward!
      If you want to discourage please discourage DJ, Waduge, Rathnavalli so on because they write crap after crap.

      Well done thahita Cader.
      Keep writing good stuff.

  • 2

    Water water every where is the weapon.

    Tibet has enough and more sweet natural mineral water to feed China for 40 years atleast.

    The Hindu kush has enough Gas to feed the whole of Europe for 40 years -so to hell with Russia but why did the Indians who got the contract to lay the pipes not commence or have boots on the ground?? Russian influence in the defence treaty??

    Men who made fuel with water to run vehicles simply vanished from this earth- CIA moneda franca $. Same as legalizing Mari for fuel- the cheapest because it is used for various things and needs almost nothing even less water.

    The world patent rights for natural mineral water belongs to “Nestle” of UK registered in the Swiss.

    Lanka is cesspit of India and mostly contaminated. 20 million still breeding.

  • 2

    China in the 80’s a bottle of beer was cheaper than toilet paper.

    When there is a surfeit of Apples in the west it becomes too expensive to donate it to the starving populations of the world so they make wine and this keeps the folk from falling sick with hepatitis.

    During the days when there was no bottled water All backpackers used a way side tea shop for tea and boiled water brought from very dirty areas.

    Bottled water and TWA syndrome are synonymous.

  • 0

    I think a previous post mentions the dangers of wiki-style research. I would like to add the risks of basing analyses on documentaries to that list.

    Private companies cannot privatise natural resources unless agents of State facilitate such, by indulging in corruption. It is as simple as that. Apathy and ignorance by the public at large will have tragic effects on their own quality of life.

    The sooner us Sri Lankans figure this out, the better our future will turn out to be. For now, we are ALL selfish, thinking just for ourselves and our families – Without any regard to anyone. Paying lip service may sound nice, but it changes nothing.

    The Consumer Authority is Sri Lanka is publicising raids and are condemning spoilt food and drugs. Has the sleeping media bothered to find out how and why anyone would import fruit worth 1000’s of $ and leave them in a warehouse to rot? Is’nt there something strange in that? Were the fruit over-ripe to start with? What were the Customs doing to allow it into the country in the first place?

    And, by the way: The Minister in charge of the subject just spent 100’s of lakhs to get his son elected to the Pradeshiya Sabha. Where did he get all that money? Did the sleepy media investigate that? Nooooo!

    So, we have an ignorant public because we have a lazy and uneducated media full of wanna-be journalists who do not know the first thing about reporting or journalism. In case anyone cares, they are not one and the same thing.

    Just in case one wants to be a REAL REPORTER, one just might get picked up by a White Van!!!

  • 1

    An excellent and timely article, and brings back memories of a holiday in Negombo about an year ago. Behind The Beach hotel that we stayed was a very nice ’boutique’ and I got to know the manager. One afternoon when I went to look for him, I found him in his back yard with his young son filling up bottles of water from a tap (with a sock filter attached), to sell to the tourists of Kudapaduwa. His own-pc done label said ‘from the mountain springs of Sri Lanka’. You cannot beat Sri Lankan for enterprise!

  • 0

    Congratulation excellent article;and thank you for highlighting the importance of clean water to be available for every human in planet earth;we must be grateful since we are blessed with clean water;keep writing more factual articles although in everthhing there will be a few negative people around us

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