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Some faith groups say bottled water immoral

By Rebecca U. Cho | The Chicago Tribune | December 15, 2006 Read Original

WASHINGTON — Thou shalt not murder. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife. Thou shalt not ... drink bottled water?

Rooted in the notion that clean drinking water, like air, is a God-given resource that shouldn't be packaged and sold, a fledgling campaign against the bottling of water has sprung up among people of faith. And though the campaign is at a relative trickle, and confined mostly to left-leaning religious groups, activists hope to build a broad-based coalition to carry the message that water should not be available only to those who can afford it.

Cassandra Carmichael, director of eco-justice programs for the National Council of Churches, said she has noted an increasing number of religious groups that consider the bottling of water a wrongful — perhaps immoral — act.

"We're just beginning to recognize the issue as people of faith,'" Carmichael said.

In October, the National Coalition of American Nuns, a progressive group representing 1,200 U.S. nuns, adopted a resolution asking members to refrain from purchasing bottled water unless necessary.

Likewise, Presbyterians for Restoring Creation, a grass-roots group within the Presbyterian Church (USA), launched a campaign last May urging individuals to sign a pledge against drinking bottled water and to take the message to their churches.

The United Church of Christ, partnering with the National Council of Churches, produced a documentary, "Troubled Waters," that looked at the dangers of water privatization around the world, including the bottling of water for sale in poor areas. The documentary aired on ABC television in October.

In the developing world, Carmichael said, water is being sold as a commodity where the resource is scarce. With the rationale that bottling water takes water resources away from the poor, Carmichael said the environmental issue has become an important one for people of faith.

"The moral call for us is not to privatize water," Carmichael said. "Water should be free for all."

Americans consume more bottled water than any other beverage category except carbonated soft drinks, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp., a New York-based research organization. In 2005, Americans drank about 7.5 billion gallons of bottled water, a 10.4 percent increase from 2004. The U.S. leads the world in bottled water consumption. At the same time, one-third of the world's population lives under water-stressed conditions. That proportion will double by 2025, according to a 2006 United Nations report on water scarcity.

Water is scarcest in arid developing countries plagued by drought and pollution, such as South Africa, where agriculture fuels the demand, according to the report.

Sister Mary Ann Coyle, the American Nuns board member who introduced the measure against bottled water, said the fear is that as water becomes a commodity, it will no longer remain a right for all people.

"Our faith tells us to be just and not exploit the poor," said Coyle, who regards drinking bottled water as a sin. Coyle said in the U.S., people are paying for bottled water when American tap water is among the safest in the world.

"The use of bottled water in the U.S. is more a lifestyle issue than a necessity," Coyle said. "In this country, we should do more to push to not drink bottled water unless we need it."

But Stephen Kay, spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association, said targeting bottled water among the hundreds of other products that use water will not lead to long-term solutions in poor areas. He said bottled water is actually a minimal user of ground water.

Better solutions would come from determining how to get clean water into areas struggling with access, Kay said.

"It narrows the focus with what I imagine is good intent," he said.

The Coca-Cola Co., a leading provider of bottled water with the Dasani brand, recognizes the serious nature of water issues and is working on several community initiatives in developing countries, said spokeswoman Lisa Manley.

"From our perspective, water solutions require the efforts of multiple organizations, nonprofits, governments, community organizations and the like," Manley said. "I hope we'd work toward the same purpose of making safe water accessible to all people of the world."

Manley said consumers should be allowed to drink the beverage they choose. She said Coca-Cola does not claim that bottled water is safer to drink than tap water, but people to choose to buy bottled water for its convenience and consistent safety.

But Rebecca Barnes-Davies, coordinator of Presbyterians for Restoring Creation, said bottled water companies encourage a culture in the U.S. that is comfortable with privatizing a basic human right.

She said she hopes boycotting bottled water will put pressure on bottled water companies to behave responsibly in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

"As people of faith, we don't and shouldn't pretend to have ownership of any resource — it's God's," she said. "We have to be the best steward we can be of all those resources."

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