Water is a subject that is increasingly attracting the attention of gastronomes and gourmets. Mineral water tasting courses are growing more and more numerous, not to say fashionable. Which water goes best with fish? Which has the right levels of sodium to go well with a roast? Which freshens up the mouth best after savory fare? Which exalts the flavors of refinedhors d’oeuvres? My advice to proselytes of this new trend is to give up all this gustatory masturbation and open their eyes to the upheavals our planet is currently undergoing. While this new breed of sommeliers is intent upon honing its skills and the most fashionable restaurants are starting to present diners with mineral water lists, a handful of multinationals is beginning to gobble up the world’s water resources one by one. French giants such as Vivendi (which, incidentally, owns Universal Pictures and Canal +, too), Ondeo (of the Suez-Lyonnaise des Eux group) and Danone, as well as the likes of Nestlé and Coca Cola, are tapping into drinking water everywhere – from Italy to Africa to Latin America – buying up the best mineral water springs and bottling brands. A veritable planet-wide water oligarchy is coming into being before our very eyes. Let’s see why.
In view of the increasing scarcity of the world’s water resources (on account of pollution, desertification and the population boom, the amount of water on the earth today is 40% less than it was 30 years ago), in 1994 the World Bank steered the setting up of the World Water Council with the aim of establishing a planet-wide water policy. To cut a long story short, the conclusion of the Water Council’s research is that, being so rare, water is a marketable economic commodity that is worth a price. The present policy is thus to privatize the world’s water resources in order to manage them better. Multinationals, present in force in the World Water Council, have thrown themselves into the business for all they’re worth. In negotiating Third World loans, the World Bank itself ties them to the privatization of water resources, thereby giving rise to the most absurd situations. In April 2000, six people died and 175 were injured in Bolivia following a peasant revolt against Las Aguas del Tunari (a consortium of multinationals, including Italy’s Montedison) and its purchase of the Cochabamba aqueduct. People who earn just a fistful of dollars a day were angry because their water rates had been raised by 100-300%. More and more people find themselves deprived of access to water. Digging below the surface, we find that one of the root causes of the conflicts in Palestine and Kashmir is the sharp disparity in water distribution. Water thus generates wars. There’s not enough to go round, and the World Bank’s solution is to sell off what’s left to four or five economic potentates. My friend Raul Hernandez Garcia Diego in Théuacan in Mexico (home to the most important brand of mineral water in Central America) loses sleep at night studying the most wild and wonderful techniques to make water available to peasants in sufficient quantities. Thinking of him, I can only conclude that the injustices perpetrated in the name of laissez-faire simply know no bounds. Intensive agriculture is monstrously thirsty: to produce a ton of cereals with modern ‘profitable’ methods, it takes a thousand tons of water. The South of Italy battle has to cope with a water shortage every year, and this past winter has also taught us that here in the north we have to be careful not to waste water – and to keep a close eye on the new multinational oligopolies.
In short, water is gradually becoming the oil of the new millennium, triggering privatizations and causing a frightening acceleration in the process of transformation. Which is why I personally intend to sign the Water Manifesto that many NGOs are now promoting. Water is the irreplaceable source of life and, as such, ought to belong to everybody. What’s happening is reminiscent of the phenomenon of the patentability of life. Today everything has a price. Everything is buyable – ethics or no ethics. But what if you haven’t any money to spend? In St Francis of Assisi’s prayer ‘Praised by You, my Lord, through Sister Water, which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste’, I don’t think that by ‘precious’ he meant it cost a lot of money.
To read the Water Manifesto:
First published in Agricoltura – La Stampa 10/03/02
(Adapted by John Irving)