Last week, I checked into the Doubletree Hilton hotel in Tucson, Arizona – a lush green resort on a concrete island in the south-western United States’ drought-stricken Sonoran Desert, and venue for the SWAN International Conference on “Water Challenges”. As I dragged my case past the mini-bar, I caught sight of a square blue plastic bottle sat on the counter. ‘Fiji Water‘, read the label, mine for $4.
This was not the first time I had been struck by the dissonance between the reason for my presence in Arizona, to research water conflicts, and the realities of the everyday American consumerism in which I am utterly complicit. At a similar conference last year, we had been handed out bottles containing water sourced entirely from Californian springs, a state in the midst of the worst drought in recent U.S. history. But here, in the most developed nation on Earth, why on earth do I need to pay $4 for a bottle of water from one of the least developed nations on a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean? Particularly as the federal government had invested $4 billion on a system of canals which transports water 336 miles from the Colorado River to the tap in the bathroom 6 feet away.
Last weekend, Fiji was hit by tropical cyclone Winston, one of the strongest tropical cyclones recorded in the South Pacific waters east of Australia. Eighteen people are known to have been killed. Fiji’s permanent secretary has said that ensuring clean water for cyclone survivors is a particular challenge. People are being asked to boil their water, treat it with chemicals or drink bottled water.
Step forward Fiji Water, tweeting on Monday that their “thoughts and prayers are with all the people of Fiji during this difficult time especially our employees and their families” and that they are “deploying resources incl. shelter, food & especially water”.
But the issue of access to clean, safe water for local people has been pervasive throughout Fiji Water’s presence on the archipelago’s largest island Viti Levu. While Fiji Water has targeted the rich and the famous for it’s premium product, and pays no corporation tax to the state’s coffers, the people of Fiji have been left with serious water problems.
For her article in Mother Jones in 2009, Anna Lenzer reported on the crumbling pipes, 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.”
While the Lonely Planet has warned that in some towns water “has been deemed unfit for human consumption,” the weary traveller, and beleaguered islander, can rest assured that Fiji Water can be bought at the grocery store for 90 cents a pint – almost as much as it costs in the US.
Fiji Water was founded by a Canadian mining magnate. These roots in the extractive industries betray an instrumental view on nature which is at odds with its capacity to sustain the global capitalist order. The company’s existence is testament to the necessity for capital to extend into all parts of the world, and its tendency to expose local populations to disproportionate levels of risk to events such as Cyclone Winston.
Despite the company’s mitigating claims for fostering development on the islands of Fiji, and it’s commitment to nature conservation, it cannot rationalise the fundamental inequities that the commodification of water creates. It cannot justify the asymmetry between me and the Fijian. The differential exposure to risk. As I sit on my hotel veranda, sipping bottled water from a small island thousands of miles away, the people affected by Cyclone Winston sit in the wreckage of their homes, waiting for a corporate suit to show up with a crate of that same water – water which they themselves have been dispossessed of.