Posted on November 29, 2010, Printed on November 30, 2010
It seems there is trouble in paradise. The boutique bottled water brand Fiji Water has announced that it is shutting down its operations in Fiji after the nation's government proposed a tax hike -- from 1/3 of a cent to 15 cents a liter. This comes just a week after one of the company's top executives, David Roth, was deported.
Fiji is run by a military junta that has imposed martial law on the country, something that Fiji Water never seemed to have a problem with, until the rogue government went for the company's pocketbook. Since the founding of the bottled water company in 1995, Fiji Water has worked to brand itself as the premiere bottled water brand (and its sales have now bested Perrier and Evian for the top bottled water import in the U.S.) and even one that is "green," despite the fact that it's shipped thousands of miles and sold in single-use plastic bottles, which mainly end up in landfills. The celebrity favorite, Fiji Water, is the baby of Stewart and Lynda Resnick, co-owners of the company, and well-known 'limousine liberals' and agribusiness billionaires, who rake in millions in water subsidies from the U.S. government.
In reaction to the announcement that Fiji Water was shutting its doors, Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food and Water Watch, said she hoped it was a permanent closure. "Fiji Water exports bottled water to the U.S., which enjoys clean and safe water from the tap, while half of Fijians lack access to safe water," said Hauter. "There is something wrong with this picture. Water must be managed as a common resource, not as a market commodity. Unfortunately, celebrities, sports figures and American consumers pay a premium for the Fiji Water brand, buying it at approximately 3,300 times the cost of U.S. tap water. According to the EPA, a gallon of tap water costs consumers anywhere from .002 to .003 cents. A liter of Fiji Water costs approximately $2.19."
Of course if you ask Lynda Resnick about the quality of U.S. water you'll get a different response. Anna Lenzer, in an investigative story on Mother Jones last year shared a quote from one of Resnick's books where she said, "You can no longer trust public or private water supplies," which I guess doesn't leave people with too many options, other than importing water from halfway across the globe from an impoverished nation run by a corrupt military junta, in which the nation's own people are desperate for drinkable water. As Lenzer reports about the town of Rakiraki, near Fiji Water's bottling plant:
Rakiraki has experienced the full range of Fiji's water problems--crumbling pipes, a lack of adequate wells, dysfunctional or flooded water treatment plants, and droughts that are expected to get worse with climate change. Half the country has at times relied on emergency water supplies, with rations as low as four gallons a week per family; dirty water has led to outbreaks of typhoid and parasitic infections. Patients have reportedly had to cart their own water to hospitals, and schoolchildren complain about their pipes spewing shells, leaves, and frogs. Some Fijians have taken to smashing open fire hydrants and bribing water truck drivers for a regular supply.
Not exactly the image that Fiji Water has tried to project of their company, but that's the nature of water commodification. "Like oil in the 20th century, water has become increasingly managed by corporate cartels that move it around the globe, where it flows out of communities and towards money," said Hauter. "The commodification of water will continue to contribute to human rights abuses around the world, whether it helps bolster undemocratic governments or drives water from a community where it is needed."
Whether or not this closure of Fiji Water is truly permanent or just a little business posturing to negotiate a better deal, remains to be seen. A few years ago the company temporarily shut down its operations in protest to tax hikes as well. If the shut down is permanent, it's likely that the company's owners will be on the hunt for new sources of water to exploit for profit, and according to Lenzer, that could be in New Zealand. As long as consumers continue to buy bottled water and give in to marketing gimmicks from boutique brands bottled in faraway places, there will always be companies hoping to cash in on our folly and there will likely be local populations getting the short end of the stick.
Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.
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