Water is the new oil, according to James Bond

Bad water baron! Bad!

Bad water baron! Bad!

After watching Quantum of Solace (yes, I know, I just effectively outdated this post by mentioning a movie that came out a month ago, but bear with me), I arrived at the following conclusions:

1) Water is the new oil; 2) Eco-villains are the new sinister-eye-patch-wearing-Dr.-Evil-type villains; and 3) As much as I’m a proud Canadian, CSIS spies really have no place in a Bond film.

But back to the first part — as I wrote in my last column for the Post (you can also read the full story below), it really does seem that as private water companies expand, especially into areas like the Global South, we’re going to be talking less about oil barons than water barons; instead of protesting against Texaco, Exxon-Mobil or Shell, activists will be banging at the doors of Suez, Vivendi (renamed Veolia) and Bechtel. To explore this a bit further, I interviewed Maude Barlow… and, well, you can read up on what she had to say at the bottom of this post. In short: She freaked me out almost as much as Al Gore did back in the day with his slides of drowning CGI polar bears.

Part of me wanted to drop everything, infiltrate Veolia headquarters and cut off their water supply to see how they like not being able to make tea or wash their hands after using the bathroom or flush the toilet or just freakin’ hydrate themselves to stay alive. But then Reality knocked on my cubicle and told me to just finish the damn article and go home to my cat.

Still, at the very least, it’s driven me to be even more of a (publicly controlled) tap-water advocate — and with that, I’m going to ask you readers to help me out a bit. In my house, I currently have a carbon filter on the top floor, a Brita jug and filter in the kitchen, a stainless steel container, and this new thing called Zero Water, which is basically like the Brita jug and filter except it comes with a little meter that lets you test how many parts per million of dissolved solids are in there before you take a swig — the company sent it to me and they claim their filter takes out four-times as much as most carbon filters (although I’m still waiting to hear back from them about whether the plastic jug is BPA-free). I can’t do any of those filters that attach directly to the faucet because my faucets aren’t really adaptable to that, unfortunately.

Anyway, I’m planning on doing a bit of a taste test so that I can finally figure out which filter system is a) the most environmentally friendly (as in: Can the filter be recycled? How often does it need to be changed? What kind of packaging does it come with?); and b) produces the best-tasting water. When I come to a conclusion, I’m going to present my research to anyone who insists that bottled water tastes better and challenge them to do a blind taste test (or, if they refuse, hurl a lot of petty insults at them until they feel guilty).

Here’s where I need your help, though: Have you tried out a lot of different tap-water filtering mechanisms? Is there one that you think stands out as a clear winner? Do you think tap water tastes just fine and we should quit complaining about it in the first place? Does is just need to sit for a while and get cold to lose its metallic taste? Does a stainless steel container help or hinder? Comment below!

I’ll update everyone on my taste-testing in the coming week or so.

In the mean time, here’s the Post story:

To most James Bond fans, the villain in Quantum of Solace may come as a surprise – this time, it isn’t some disfigured, revenge-obsessed arms dealer working out of an underground lair in Russia, but rather a plain-looking guy in khakis named Dominic Greene, head of a prominent environmental organization.

What classifies Greene as evil is the fact that he wants to privatize Bolivia’s water supply and subsequently drive up the country’s utility prices – hardly a plot to wipe out all of humankind, but it’s not exactly a nice thing to do, either.

But while he may seem a little benign, Greene nonetheless marks the first true eco-baddie the Bond franchise has seen and personifies a very pressing concern in real life: access to water.

“The thing that’s really frightening in Quantum of Solace is that it’s true,” said Mathieu Amalric, the actor who plays Greene, in an interview with the L.A. Times. “It’s not a big fantasy like in the Bond films of the 1980s.”

Indeed, the plot is loosely based on what happened in 1999, when the U.S.-based firm Bechtel signed a contract to privatize the sale and distribution of water in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Massive protests and a series of organized strikes ultimately returned control of this resource to the local government; however, Bechtel then attempted to sue for some US$50-million in lost profits.

A year before and across the ocean, local councils in South Africa began privatizing water, forcing citizens to pay into a meter system at every well. Those who couldn’t afford it ended up drinking from polluted streams and ponds instead and, by 2002, the country had suffered its worst cholera epidemic in history, one that infected more than 250,000 people.

“What the world needs is a quantum of water justice,” says Maude Barlow, a Canadian activist and senior United Nations advisor on water. “It really is an issue of life or death. It’s bigger than energy, even – oil destroys the environment and companies are stealing it and so on, but no one in the world has to die from a lack of oil. People are dying from lack of water … the crisis is here, and anybody who moves into desperate countries in the Global South to make money by denying water to people who can’t afford it will increasingly be seen as villains.”

Barlow believes that, as we become more environmentally aware, we’ll talk less about oil barons and corporations such as Exxon, Shell and Texaco, and instead focus on water barons and firms such as Suez, Vivendi, Nestlé, Bechtel and Thames Water of England.

In a recent interview on CBC Radio about the future of this industry, an executive with Thames referred to water as the petroleum of the 21st century.

“There will be world wars fought over this in the future,” he said. “Water is a limited, precious resource, so the growth market is always going to be there.”

Gerard Payen, who directed the overseas expansion for Suez, agrees, adding: “Water as a business is very effective when you look at the needs. We purify water and bring this water to your home. We provide a service, it has a cost and somebody has to pay for it.”

Well, yes. But the question is, does someone also have to profit from it?

In a year-long investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, it was shown that private water companies have now expanded into every region of the world, with more than 300 million people getting water from a commercial source. As an example of the immense growth rate of these companies: RWE, when it acquired Thames Water (it has since sold it), went from earning about US$25-million in 1990 to US$2.5-billion in 2002.

“You’re starting to see the sale of whole river systems now, too,” Barlow says. “In Canada, there’s tons of interest in exporting our water into the U.S., from northern Manitoba down to Texas, for example. And last month, the Montreal Economic Institute put out a study calling for the export of Quebec’s water to the U.S.”

Daniel Klymchuk, author of Water Exports: The 1% Solution, thinks plans like this aren’t necessarily a bad idea – in fact, he argues that a pipeline from Hudson Bay to the U.S. border exporting 1% of its water would earn the province US$1.33-billion a year and have no effect on the surrounding ecological system, as the flow would be diverted just before it enters the ocean.

“To assume no other province will sell water in the future is an unforgiveable error in judgment,” he writes. “If we do not act soon, we will ultimately price ourselves out of the water market.”

Of course, sitting somewhere in between Barlow and Klymchuk are those who believe in public-private partnerships, where a private corporation provides the infrastructure and technology but the utility itself is still owned by the local government.

It’s a complicated issue, and part of the problem is that the legalities behind water aren’t always clear.

“We don’t have a decent national law – the last water act was passed in 1970 – and we haven’t really mapped out our groundwater,” Barlow says. “We’ve stopped the privatization of water treatment plants across Canada but we haven’t banned the commercial export of water, and there are ongoing fights between communities around the Great Lakes and bottled-water companies like Nestlé.”

As a sign that it’s on top of such issues, Nestlé – which owns Perrier, Vittel, San Pellegrino and other international water brands – has released a video to address any concerns over its sources, how its water is treated, packaged and so on (the website also has a few pages devoted to sustainability and environmental responsibility). Meanwhile, the Coca-Cola company is holding a conference next month to look at the impact of privatization and whether it’s possible to strive for a “water-neutral footprint.”

“Still, the facts are pretty stark when you look at what they’ve done,” Barlow says. “Water barons are smart, persistent and ahead of the curve, so they know a crisis is looming and they’re basically trying to overcome this ‘bad guy’ reputation before it gets even worse.”


15 Responses to Water is the new oil, according to James Bond

  1. Meghan says:

    I get asked about water all the time. People are all crazy about water. Nuts about their water coming in plastic bottles, out of taps etc. etc. etc. But- what about Coke? Is the water used in Coke filtered? Are we worried about our Coke coming in plastic bottles and the distance it is travelling? I can’t stand when people send me articles about studies that prove broccoli can’t cure cance and that high fructose corn syrup isn’t the obesity monster we’ve been led to believe.

    So here is my professional, nutritionista opinion about water: Drink it! I drink tap water. I use a double carbon blocker and heavy metal filter. I love it and my water tastes great. As for the Brita- I would sooner drink straight from the tap than drink from a Brita.

  2. Amy says:

    Just a note to say that RWE no longer owns Thames Water. They sold the water company in 2006. Please can you reflect this in your article? Many thanks.

  3. emma says:

    My favorite one has always been the kind you attach to your tap…so when you want fresh water you just press a button. No giant Brita jugs, etc. But then again – those tap things are U.G.L.Y. Someone needs to start designing a cute pink one or something….

  4. gettinggreen says:

    Really? Thanks Amy — I had no idea… I’ll make that change now.

    And Meghan, I know using a Brita jug is bad on account of the plastic or whatever, but my Brita jug is BPA-free and regular tap water in Toronto has something like 400 ppm of total dissolved solids, of which the Brita filters out at least 75%, and it does taste better.

    I think the filters that attach to the faucet are great, too, but my faucets (except for the top floor, where my carbon filter is) are all these kinds that don’t work with those attachments and I REALLY don’t want to start replacing all my faucets.

  5. nady says:

    I just heard Maude Barlow talk a few weeks ago, and man is she powerful!

    I think that by filtering your tap water you are buying into the propaganda that the major water companies are putting forward. You live in Toronto,a city that has some of the safest and tastiest water water in the world. Any product that one would use to filter their water takes energy and resources to produce, regardless whether or not it is recyclable.

    If you live in a city where can’t drink your water straight from the tap then you should demand from your municipality to provide a better service.

  6. Anie says:

    I think tap water is fantastic, granted in certain cities it tastes better, and in certain places i take more caution. Where i used to live in ontario i loved the tap water, it was probably the best water i had ever tasted, this was unfiltered. Now i live in a rural town in BC and I am a bit more cautious, I still use the tap water but i use a filter whenever possible, being nervous of the manure run off. However, when at work i do not have access to filtered water and often forget my canteen at home so i just drink the tap water. And honestly theres no difference at all. I’m thinking of ditching the filter entirely seeing as Tap water has to meet higher standards and often tests cleaner than bottled water.

    Also, next time you happen to pop into a Tim Hortons (if you ever do) take a peek at their new recycling service. Really… because I did the other day and it turns out that at most of them behind those cute bottle holes there is just a garbage bin shared with the trash door thats beside it. I got myself into a bit of a rage and will be writing Tim Hortons as well as my local paper, and hopefully some people out there are as upset as i am the cooperation’s are duping us.

  7. Teartaye says:

    Oh man, you’d hate to have me there for your taste-test. Not that I think bottled water is a good thing, but I’d probably be able to tell you which was bottled.

    I can definitely taste the difference between tap water, “fridge water” (tap water that has been sitting for a while), bottled water and brita/other filters. Unfortunately, my water connoisseur tongue has not had any real access to other filters, so I can’t be any help. 😦

    I find I crave tap water if I don’t drink it for a while. Something about that chemically, slightly metallic taste. I can only imagine what they put in it to make it addictive! I’m mildly allergic (or overly sensitive) to the fluoride in the tap water here, so I need to drink fluoride-free water sometimes. I’ll be watching this with interest.

    And the thought of Canada exporting water to the states, for some reason, just doesn’t seem like a good idea.

  8. Sam Bozzo says:

    My documentary Blue Gold : World Water Wars, based on Maude Barlow’s book, covers the real-life water baron villains and water wars. http://www.bluegold-worldwaterwars.com has all the information. Pass it on.

  9. Kristijoy says:

    I think if you have the time and money to worry about how your water tastes that your energies are probably better spent elsewhere. Water in the states is rigorously controlled,unlike bottled water,and therefore safer for you than any bottled water(which is usually some municipality’s drinking water anyways). It also means aside from taste, that generally a filter is useless. (I’m anti fluoride however and lucky to live in a city that is too!) Aren’t we lucky to live in societies were the water flows freely from faucets and we don’t have to boil it or treat it before drinking and have the luxury to worry about taste?
    Can ya tell I drink from the tap? Man, I grew up drinking from the garden hose too.

  10. Amanda says:

    I just drink straight from the tap!

  11. Lynn says:

    I wish it were possible to drink tap water where I’m from! As it is, it’s just completely unsafe 😦

  12. Oldnovice says:

    I’m a tap water drinker, as well. I live in Grand Prairie, Texas and there’s usually a period (of drought) each summer where our city water switches over to well water. The taste is totally different … salty … during this period, so I tend to drink other things. The ice-maker in the frig still uses tap water, so drinks that require ice will get a bit of a salt taste.

    There are areas in Illinois (and probably many other areas of the US) where the water is very hard, leaves an orange residue in bathrooms, and has an odd (undesirable) odor. I don’t know if that can be filtered out or not.

  13. I drink straight from the tap. Hell, if my toilet were cleaner and we didn’t follow the yellow let it mellow rule, I would drink from there, too.

    But Seattle has tasty water. The tap water in San Diego tastes weird and the tap water in Brooklyn is just plain gross, so it depends on where you live.

  14. […] sure what the BPA stats on Brita jugs were, and oddly, when I Googled “Brita jugs BPA”, my own blog post came up as the fourth hit. Yeesh. Anyway, further research seemed to conclude that they don’t […]

  15. Toby says:

    I’m sorry, but I find it hard to believe this whole water filtration biz is anything but a scam. I’ll keep drinking my tap water that doesn’t need plastic accessories.

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