In class today we discussed the right to clean drinking water and sanitation, declared a universal human right by the United Nations in 2010 as the availability of water was increasingly under threat from global climate change, pollution, and privatization. Appallingly, it is a matter of debate whether water is in fact a right or whether it is a commodity that can be bought and sold. One student expressed delight at having been given “free” drinking water on a recent trip to Italy, in a town where the water supply had temporarily been contaminated. We talked about the idea of the Commons, and certain ancient and inalienable rights, such as the right to grazing and to water for humans and cattle. Young people in the United States are so used to buying bottled water that the notion of public water fountains in the town square is quaint: delightful, but a little dangerous.
Another student mentioned that her family has their own well which supplies them with fresh drinking water. Her boyfriend’s family, who have an expensive built-in filtration system for their town-supplied water, were shocked to see her drink straight from the tap. This is in the United States, where, with rare exceptions, the public water supply is perfectly safe to drink. But insidiously, ordinary water—unbottled, free—is becoming the exception rather than the norm.
Many universities in the United States and Canada are locked into 10-year Cold Beverage Agreements with companies like Coca-Cola as the sole providers of all their beverages, including bottled water. When our Global Studies Program organizes a catered event on campus, we ask for tap water in glass jugs instead of bottled water, but one has to know to ask, and it isn’t second-nature to do so anymore. Thankfully, student and community organizations are beginning to seek bans on bottled water and are winning.
Although technically, water is a renewable resource, the world’s water supply is finite and we waste it at our peril. Once used, it can take a very long time to return through the water cycle. Even if we switch to tap water from the bottle, we can’t take for granted that it will always be on tap. Worldwide, 783 million people do not have access to safe drinking water. We must conserve it and we must keep it in the public domain.
Raising a glass of precious water to us all on this planet.