Failing public water systems have forced more and more people in poor countries to buy bottled water from private companies, a form of privatization that has created a sharp divide among activists and officials gathered in Mexico City for an international water summit.
As delegates from the 121 countries gather Thursday for the IV World Water Forum, demonstrators plan protests against privatization, dam projects and water extraction from impoverished Indian communities.
The goal of the seven-day forum is improving water access for the poor, an effort that has failed in the past. The poor pay vastly more money to private corporations for their water today than they did when the first global water forum was held in Marrakech, Morocco, in 1997.
Privatization of water systems has been a hard sell since 2000, when thousands of Bolivians protested rate increases in water contracts held by foreign companies. The protests left seven demonstrators dead and forced the companies out of the country.
Bottled water, on the other hand, has earned good profits and little attention.
"It's in some way sort of a stealth privatization," said Janet Larsen, research director for the Earth Policy Institute, a private, Washington-based environmental group.
Once a First World health indulgence or a symbol of European epicures, bottled water is fast becoming a staple of the Third World, dominated in many regions by giants like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle. Larsen noted that the biggest gains in bottled water sales are in developing countries.
Mexico where about 40 percent of the nation's 103 million residents live in poverty is a poster child for the phenomenon. The country is now the second-largest consumer of bottled water in the world, just behind the United States in terms of volume and behind Italy in per capita consumption.
Sales of bottled water in China jumped by more than 250 percent between 1999 and 2004. They tripled in India and almost doubled in Indonesia, according to a study released by the institute. Worldwide, the industry is now worth about $100 billion per year.
It's not because people can suddenly afford the luxury; it's because tap water in some countries is so bad people are loath to use it, sometimes even for bathing.
"You can't even brush your teeth without fearing that you're going to get who-knows-what infection," said Javier Bogantes, director of the Latin American Water Tribunal, which is holding mock "trials" of water-rights violations in Mexico City during the forum. "You can't take a shower, thinking about what the stuff in the water could do to your skin."
In Mexico, bottled water is distributed by vendors in roving bicycle carts for as little as 80 cents for a 4.5-gallon jug. Usually, it's just filtered tap water.
Still, it's a hot seller in Mexico City slums such as Iztapalapa, where the yellow-brown tap water is tainted by magnesium and iron. Locals call it "tamarind juice," referring to tropical fruit.
Juana Maria Bautista like many poor around the world said she often spends as much as one-tenth of her income on water sold in bottles or delivered by water-tank trucks.
"We usually buy three or four jugs a week but sometimes, there isn't enough money," said the 42-year-old factory worker, who earns about $66 a week.
Mexican officials, stung by criticism that bottled water costs consumers thousands of times more than tap water would, announced a quixotic campaign in early March to persuade people to drink from the tap.
Two days after the announcement, the government's Health Department conceded that, given tap water quality, people should boil it before drinking it.
"The problem isn't that these companies are supplying people" with bottled water, Bogantes said. "The question is, given that governments have invested millions of dollars in water treatment and distribution systems, why aren't they supplying the population?"
One problem is that many people are accustomed to paying little or nothing for municipal water in many developing countries, said German Martinez, director of the water system in Mexico City, where only about 40 percent of customers pay on time. "What we really have to do is get people to pay for their water," he said.
When authorities construct dams to provide more water for the population, "people come and demonstrate" against them, added Jesus Campos, assistant director of Mexico's National Water Commission.
The World Water Forum, which meets every three years, is examining these issues. It will also address harnessing water for growth, providing water more efficiently, using it in a more environmentally conscious manner, and preventing it from causing natural disasters.
But Bogantes has doubts about whether the forum will consider noncommercial solutions.
"The current that is trying to solve water supply through privatization has been strong at past forums," Bogantes said. "And it appears to be the tendency here at this forum."
Copyright 2006 Associated Press