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United Church calls for ban on bottled water
By Peter Biggs
THE UNITED Church of Canada (UCC) is advising its 590,000 members to stop buying bottled water, and expressing concern at a number of levels around the issue of water consumption.
"The main thrust is our concern about the privatization of water,"
UCC social policy coordinator Richard Chambers told the Canadian Press. UCC, he said, "is committed to supporting municipal water sources wherever they exist in the country, and strengthening those."
Chambers added that there are both "economic justice questions as well as environmental questions" related to bottled water.
"If you've got $100 to spend on groceries each week, we don't want people buying into some subliminal message that the water in their taps isn't safe and that . . . they have to be spending $10 to $15 on a couple of cases of bottled water. In fact, they're paying for their water twice. They're buying that bottled water and they're also paying taxes for water -- crazy, if you're on a limited income."
The United Church does not see the issue in merely pragmatic terms.
'Water in Focus' was a special Lent 2006 initiative of the UCC which involved a broader view of creation. Biblical reflections on Genesis helped launch the mission theme for the coming year: 'Living in right relationship with creation.'
"This emphasis stems from a long history of concern for God's creation," said David Hallman, program coordinator for UCC's Energy & Environment department.
"We as humans have a responsibility to care for that creation. I realize that some question: 'What does bottled water have to do with the gospel?' I respond that UCC has a wide range of issues it is concerned with, to do with wellbeing of life. We do have a strong belief in the importance of faith in peoples lives."
Asked if focusing on the purchasing of bottled water as "wrong" would encourage UCC people to be judgmental of others who do purchase it, Hallman responded: "The focus is to encourage the 3,600 or so UCC congregations in Canada. We need to begin with our own people; but yes, there is an evangelical call to encourage others to be respectful of God's creation."
This view is also reflected by KAIROS, a Canadian ecumenical social justice coalition that describes water, in an online statement, as "a sacred gift and a necessity of life that we often take for granted.
But as global demand outstrips supply water conflicts are on the rise. Water must be maintained as a human right and a common good."
The idea that scarcity of fresh water is looming as a global crisis is well documented. Alex Kirby, BBC News Online environment correspondent, quoted the UN's Aquastat two years ago: "Global water consumption rose six-fold between 1900 and 1995 -- more than double the rate of population growth -- and goes on growing as farming, industry and domestic demand all increase. As important as quantity is quality; with pollution increasing in some areas, the amount of useable water declines."
While Canada is known as a water-rich country, the fragility of the resource was underlined recently in British Columbia, when officials at the popular Vancouver Island tourist resort of Tofino threatened to shut down all commercial use, due to a basic lack of fresh water.
Concerns about bottled water are expressed in excepts from a 2005 Polaris Institute report entitled 'Inside the Bottle - an expose of the Bottled Water Industry.'
The report expresses significant criticisms of the 'Big 4' companies (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Danone, Nestle), including price gouging, misleading marketing and labeling.
It states: "Today, close to one-fifth of the population in Canada and the U.S. drinks bottled water exclusively -- demonstrating how extraordinarily successful the industry has been in luring people away from tap water. The industry is surgical in its targeting of the young, the affluent, the athletic and the hip. It capitalizes on North America's fear and fashion factors to convince consumers to purchase its products."
Canada is among the thirstiest nations of the world. Kairos claims that "urban users in Canada [are] using more than twice as much water as their European counterparts, with significant levels of wastage and inefficiency."
While some quarters of the Christian community may be baffled by the UCC's campaign, the issue of water did resonate within Canada several months ago. Kairos declared March 22 'Water Day,' and got a significant response.
More than 217,000 postcards were delivered to the Prime Minister on the issue of water. The Canadian Federation of Municipalities, along with 175 towns and cities, signed the 'Water Declaration' -- which "asserts our shared belief that water is a sacred gift, a human right and a collective responsibility that must not be commodified."
"We have increasingly recognized water as one of the fundamental aspects of life, something not to be treated as a tradable commodity," said Hallman, asserting that this message is being increasingly understood. "We are very encouraged at how much the water issue was picked up by our congregations," he added.