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Who controls what we drink? Corporate water comes to (and from) San Francisco
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amanda@sfbg.com

On Dec. 2 two water conferences were held in San Francisco, attended by very different groups of people.

Downtown, in a room deep within the Hyatt Regency hotel, executives from PepsiCo, Dean Foods, GE, ConAgra, and other major companies gathered for the Corporate Water Footprinting Conference. The agenda that the conference made public included a presentation by Nestlé on assessing water-related risks in communities, Coca-Cola's aggressive environmental water-neutrality goal, and MillerCoors plan to use less water to make more beer.

But what these giant corporations, which are seeking to control more and more of the world's water, really discussed the public will never know. Only four media representatives were permitted to attend — all from obscure trade journals not trafficked by the typical reader — and both the Guardian and the San Francisco Chronicle were denied media passes.

The event was sponsored by IBM, and tickets were $1,500 — out of reach for many citizens and environmentalists who might have liked to attend.

And why might people take such a keen interest in the kind of corporate conference that probably occurs routinely in cities throughout the world?

Because there's almost universal agreement that the world is in a water crisis — and that big businesses see a huge opportunity in the privatization of water.

Only one half of 1 percent of all the water in the world is freshwater. Of that, about half is already polluted. Although water is a $425 billion industry worldwide — ranking just behind electricity and oil — one in six people still don't have access to a clean, safe glass of it. If the pace of use and abuse remains, the 1.2 billion people living in water-stressed areas will balloon to more than 3 billion by 2030.

That includes California. On June 4, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought after two lackluster seasons of Sierra snowfall. Scientists are predicting the same this winter. You can see how the state is mishandling the issue by looking at some recent legislation. Schwarzenegger and Sen. Dianne Feinstein have proposed a $9.3 billion bond to build more dams, canals, and infrastructure. At the same time, the governor vetoed a bill that would have required bottled water companies to report how much water they're actually drawing out of the ground.

In that context, while the big privatizers were hobnobbing at the Hyatt, activists were attending a very different event, the "Anti-Corporate Water Conference," held at the Mission Cultural Center. It was free and open to the public and the media. More than 100 people gathered to hear a cadre of international organizations share information on how to keep this basic human right — water — in the hands of people.

Speakers included Wenonah Hauter, director of Washington, DC-based Food and Water Watch; Amit Srivastava of Global Resistance, a group that works to expose international injustices by Coca-Cola; Mark Franco, head of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, which lives among water bottling plants near Mount Shasta; and Mateo Nube, a native of La Paz, Bolivia, and the director of Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project.

Nube spoke about water as a commons, requiring stewardship, justice, and democracy. "We're literally running out of water. Unless we change the way we manage, distribute, and consume water, we're going to have a real crisis on our hands," he said.