Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Where have all the water fountains gone?

Where have all the water fountains gone?

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People are turning away from bottled water as fast as they turned onto it. Municipalities across Canada and the United States are limiting the sale and purchase of bottled water in city buildings, bottled water free zones are popping up on college and university campuses, community groups are phasing out the use of bottled water, and the message about the ills of this product is all over the mainstream media.

I was recently asked in an interview about the next steps for the movement away from bottled water given that the backlash had spread so widely. The interviewer mentioned that he wasn’t sure what people would do at his local hockey arena when the only access to water was from an old dusty water fountain. His question struck a chord and confirmed my belief that the success of the anti-bottled water movement must more and more be accompanied with stronger demands for the renewal of public access to potable drinking water.

Municipal leaders have shown that there is a strong political will for increased use and promotion of tap water. However, we continuously hear of new buildings being constructed without water fountains and existing buildings decommissioning older water fountains without replacing them.

One example comes from the University of Central Florida (UCF) where a $55 million football stadium was constructed with no water fountains.

In September 2007, UCF opened the 45,000 seat football stadium for a home game. The day of the game was very hot and the concessions had less than 45,000 bottles of water on hand. The concessions ran out of bottled water and fans were left thirsty. More than sixty people were treated for heat exhaustion.

In the aftermath, it became clear that by omitting water fountains from the building plans the University administration had not followed the latest building codes that required either fountains or large water coolers. The administration hid behind the fact that the plans for the stadium were created in 2001 when the building code stated that selling single serve bottled water would be enough to hydrate tens of thousands of people.

The University and the developers knew that there were no water fountains in the building plans, and relied on the concession stands to supply drinking water at $3 a bottle. This was a conscious choice to exclude water fountains, and in this case, the choice was to interpret the building codes in such a way that would ensure expensive single serve bottled water would be the only water available in the stadium.

Outraged students quickly mobilized an online campaign to pressure the university administration to install water fountains. The campaign got the attention of the media, and the university administration quickly promised to install 50 water fountains in the stadium.

A Canadian example of water fountain omission comes from a recent survey of corporate presence on Canadian university campuses. The survey confirmed that access to drinking water on university campuses is becoming increasingly limited. Respondents to the survey noted a reduction of the number of fountains on campus and an increasing number of broken fountains. One respondent from Brock University said that, “In new buildings on campus, there are no water fountains, only Pepsi machines, and the water fountains that do exist are sparse and in inaccessible places.”

These two examples show that serious questions need to be asked about how developers, and, in these cases, university administrations, can get away with leaving water fountains out of building plans.

Who writes the building codes that allow for the omission of water fountains? How are the codes interpreted or manipulated by developers to exclude proper access to municipal drinking water sources? Regulatory bodies charged with writing and overseeing building codes need to hear loud and clear that bottled water is not the right option for hydrating large numbers of people.

Now that the bottled water industry is on the ropes and municipalities are shunning these products in favour of tap, water activists have a golden opportunity to start looking for answers. The question of public infrastructure should be thrust into the bottled water debate with strong and well organized calls for greater public investment in water services.

Any action taken by municipal governments moving consumers away from bottled water needs to be accompanied with a deep commitment to reinvest in the continent’s public water infrastructure, which seems to be on the brink of crisis.

In the United States, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) found in 2005 that the “nation's 54,000 drinking water systems face staggering public investment needs over the next 20 years.” The ASCE also claims that water infrastructure in the U.S. faces an 11$ billion (usd) funding shortfall every year. Meanwhile, in Canada, a 2007 report from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) declared it will cost more than $25 billion (usd) to bring water and waste water systems up to par. New water and wastewater needs are estimated at $48 billion (usd).

For-profit water services corporations exploit these funding shortfalls to push for public-private partnerships and full privatization of public water systems. Take United Water (US subsidiary of French water services giant Suez), for example, that states on its website that there are “options available to municipalities faced with shrinking budgets and aging infrastructures.” The company then markets its services saying that it can provide “flexible solutions to these challenges through public-private partnerships and comprehensive asset management contracts.”

Our political leadership is not doing much to help the situation either. When the FCM report was released, Canada’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told municipal leaders to stop “whining” and to “do their job.” This lack of sensitivity by elected officials and lurking for-profit water services companies means that we could see more privatization in the near future.

Consumers’ love affair with bottled water is coming to an end. However, if vows are not renewed between politicians, public institutions and public water delivery, people may find themselves living in a society where cheap access to water is a privilege and not a right. This is the time for activists and concerned people everywhere to issue strong calls for greater public access to free potable water and a wholesale reinvestment in water infrastructure and services.

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