Beverages and water wars !

Khalid Saleem

COMING upon one of those billboards that blight the skyline of the Capital of this blessed land, one learnt to one’s horror that a certain bottled brand had the distinction of being “Pakistan’s favourite water”. This was news indeed, since local lore one had grown up with always had it that any locality’s favourite water was the one that came out of the deep well adjacent to the mosque. At least this was the case, a few decades ago, which was presumably the last time ‘elders’ gathered around to consider the issue. Maybe, unbeknown to one, the situation had radically changed after the onset of the Pandemic, just as everything else has. But, then, why announce it on billboards?

The one reason that one can think of for this haste to announce it from the housetops (read, billboards) is that our economy whiz kids may have all of a sudden realized that there is big money to be made from water. This commodity, that was once not only freely available but was also considered nature’s gift to humankind, has now – thanks to the mixed priorities of our merry band of planners – become a saleable commodity and one out of which millions can be earned without much effort. The only hurdle in the way of the cut-throat brigade aforementioned was the way this precious commodity was available in plenty in this Land of the Pure (read Poor). So, what better way to vault this hurdle than to contaminate our natural sources of water so as to oblige an already impoverished multitude to get addicted to bottled water they could ill afford?

One would crave the indulgence of the gentle reader to digress a bit from the matter at hand. At the risk of being branded as old fashioned, but one can distinctly remember the time when the ultimate thirst quencher was, well, plain water! When one felt thirsty one instinctively went for a refreshing glass of fresh water. And if one felt like living it up a bit when the weather was warm, one opted for the luxury of iced water. That appears now to be ancient history! In the fashionable milieu of today, it is considered to be infra-dig to imbibe mere water if one happens to be thirsty; one is supposed to go for what is euphemistically called a ‘beverage’. For those who still thirst for plain old water, the powers that be happen to have another trick up their sleeve. They have thought up what is now known as ‘designer water’. Public Relations agents have thereby managed to give a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘liquid assets’.

The irony is that while this game is being played in the prosperous societies – and by association in the prosperous segments of the poorer societies – the overwhelming majority of the world’s population does not have access to clean drinking water. Those (among them the inhabitants of our blessed land) whom nature has endowed with abundant water resources are being deliberately denied access to this natural resource by their ‘planners’ in order to swell the local market for the beverage-toting multinational giants.
At this point, one could perhaps be permitted to take the liberty of reminding the multinational beverage giants of their duty towards humanity at large. Profits from the sale of bottled beverages (even if we are to count only the developing world markets) are astronomical.

Would it be too much to expect these multinational giants to put aside a small proportion of their profits (say ten percent) to be utilized – under the general supervision of the United Nations – for projects intended for the express purpose of making clean drinking water available to the deprived sections of the world populace? Such projects could, as a corollary, help raise the image of the United Nations from an ineffectual debating society to that of a utilitarian Organization working for the general uplift of the ‘peoples’ it is supposed to represent. Meanwhile, the beverage wars go on unabated. Bottled water, together with the ‘alternative drinks’ with their eye-catching names, help add to the flavour of the contest. Meanwhile, the multinational giants continue to rake in billions. The Third World and the Common Man, as is the norm, remain on the receiving end where they belong!

After this digression of sorts, one could perhaps hark back to the res, as legal eagles are wont to put it. History as we know has seen wars over the control of various natural resources. The most recent have been the wars for the control of oil. It appears highly likely that the wars of the foreseeable future will be on the control of the world’s water resources. In the Middle East and occupied Palestine the struggle for the control of the sources of water is already on. India’s obduracy about Jammu and Kashmir can be directly traced to her desire to control the upper reaches of the sources of water flowing into Pakistan.

An authority on ecology was once quoted as saying: “there is no problem faced by a developing country that cannot be traced back to water: either its shortage or its surfeit”. The world has learned the hard way to take water seriously. As always, we are several steps behind. Still, it is never too late to make amends. There are bitter lessons to be learnt from history. The way our ‘civilization’ is progressing, sources of water are fast becoming a scarce commodity – a commodity well worth fighting for. The world may be in for “water wars” to follow the ones for the control of fuel oil. It would be just as well for humankind to be prepared for this eventuality. As they say, fore-warned is fore-armed!
— The writer is a former Ambassador and former Assistant Secretary General of OIC.