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Drink tap water, church urges

United Church opposes selling of 'sacred gift'

Joel Kom, with files from Vito Pilieci

The Ottawa Citizen; with files from the Canadian Press

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Forget the bottle, use the tap.

That's the message the United Church of Canada is sending three million Canadians tied to the church after passing a motion this week to discourage the purchase of bottled water.

Church delegates at a triennial general council in Thunder Bay backed a resolution saying "water is a sacred gift that connects all life" and that "its value to the common good must take priority over commercial interests."

In other words, the church believes privatization of water should be avoided.

The church decided to tackle water issues after congregations in London, Hamilton and the Montreal area asked that delegates address what they saw as the growing private ownership of water in Canada and the potential for environmental harm, said Richard Chambers, the social policy co-ordinator for the church's national office.

There were also requests from churches in Asia, Latin America and Africa concerned about water scarcity, he said. Water, he added, is an essential part of life on Earth, reason enough for the church to address companies profiting from it.

"The idea of some people starting to make a buck off of that in a widespread way, the concern is that bottled water is only the thin edge of the wedge of much larger investment by companies like Coca-Cola (which owns Dasani) and Pepsi-Cola (which owns Aquafina) to provide wide-scale deliveries around the world," he said.

The church isn't calling for a boycott, Mr. Chambers said, only asking its members to avoid buying bottled water wherever possible.

Mr. Chambers said there have been reports that some bottled water is simply municipal drinking water that has been repackaged . And in many cases, he said , water provided by municipalities is better than bottled water because of questions raised by researchers about the effect the plastic bottle has on the water as it begins to break down.

"The water coming out of the tap is a lot safer than the water in disposable water bottles," he said.

But Elizabeth Griswold, executive director of the Canadian Bottled Water Association, which represents about 100 companies and 80 to 85 per cent of bottled water sold in Canada, said the church got most of its facts from environmental groups and not from the industry itself.

While about 25 per cent of bottled water companies buy their water from municipalities, bottled water production uses only 0.2 per cent of all groundwater in Canada, she said.

"We are just part of the democratic society and we are a business that sells our product," she said, comparing it to a company that sells canned peaches.

Bottled-water companies, which made $650 million in sales in Canada in 2003, are also starting to provide water to Third World countries, Ms. Griswold said.

Calls late yesterday afternoon to Coca-Cola representatives were not immediately returned.

The church's resolution won't have a long-term effect on the industry because people like the choice of bottled water, she said.

The church will now begin to offer courses, which will take five weeks to complete, on the importance of clean drinking water. The courses will also address issues pertaining to water pollution and water access.

Mr. Chambers said there are more than one billion people on Earth who are without a clean supply of drinking water.

Mr. Chambers said the church wants the federal government to sign a United Nations convention that would recognize water as a human right as well as help provinces and municipalities upgrade their water infrastructure.

And although it's now official church policy, no one will be forced to follow it.

"Local congregations have quite a bit of autonomy" and are free to decide to continue buying bottled water, said Mr. Chambers.

Three million Canadians claim affiliation to the United Church, according to Statistics Canada.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2006

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