Analysis of UK Journalistic Coverage of the Global Water Crisis

I chose to explore how the discourse of commercial interests and humanitarian crises regarding global water trade are represented in international media. This analysis covers articles written in the nine months between 27 February and 12 November of 2010.

The 15 news articles I chose to analyze generally fell into one of three categories. The first category was relatively dispassionate reportage of trends in water utilities and resource privatization. The second framework was a bit more disturbing, had been obviously whitewashed with Eurocentric views, and had a strong corporate bias. The third type of perspective had a decidedly more humanitarian bent, and discussed water problems beyond Europe, reaching into places such as Cambodia and Yemen.

Articles with a relatively dispassionate, factual tone were in the minority in The Guardian: only two of the 15 articles I chose framed their stories without too much bias in any direction. In Firms feel pressure over water supplies, the article explicated the impact of droughts and floods on the global water trade. There was little analysis per se, as the article seemed to merely list regulations and updates in regards to prices and procedures. The article was written for the Financial Section, and the technical language could have been rather cumbersome for an individual uncomfortable with business matters. Furthermore, the article would not have resonated with someone uninformed about the flooding in Pakistan, for example.

Improbable research: College students get ratted on water was in the Education section of The Guardian, and explained a recent Japanese scientific study. This study compared the levels of “hardness” (ie. mineral content) that were considered “most tasty” by female college students and rats. If anything, this article was random trivia, something that might appeal to scientists or people who enjoy reading quirky stories. In reflection, these articles served as a primer for the thirteen other articles I analyzed for this project. Because they were relatively unbiased, they were almost a “control group” by which to measure the framing and particularities of the “corporate-minded” and “humanitarian-concerned” journalistic approaches, which will be examined next.

The seven articles clearly sympathetic towards corporate interests and the privatization of water were in four sections of the paper. Two were written for the Home (British) News, two for the International section, two for Finance, and one for the Debate & Opinion section. More than likely, these articles were aimed at middle to upper-class Europeans, a population comfortable with their water drinking and purchasing habits. So too perhaps might these articles perpetuate a certain apathy towards the crisis beyond the EuroZone. Phrases often carried an overtly capitalist sentiment, emphasizing, “survival of the companies,” “addictions to bottled water,” “funds,” “investments” and “commodities.”

One such article, despite the gravity of the economic implications, was almost laughable. The piece, titled Queen’s favourite bottled water to cease production: Owners say factory cannot compete in mass market focused on the closure of bottled water company favored by the British Royal Family. The CEO of Malvern Water said that people “were worried about the Queen,” now that her favorite water will no longer be sold. Coca-Cola owns the company, and the decision to cease production was due to an inability to compete with larger subsidiaries. In typical English fashion, another water company said they will “be writing to the Queen to see if she wants to try our water” instead. This article offers a very Anglocentric view of water privatization at large. As global water trade becomes a cut-throat business amongst hegemonic corporations like Coca-Cola, this article was simply focused on Queen Elizabeth!

In Eau la la! Paris Park has fizzy water on tap, the discourse concerning the (European) bottled water crisis was appropriately objective, but nevertheless a bit twee. According to the author, a new French public fountain injected with carbonation is “expected to prove a user-friendly means of weaning the French off the bottle.” Because the average Frenchman drank “28 gallons of still or sparkling last year, France is the eighth biggest consumer of bottled water in the world,” the hope is to “boost the image of Paris tap water”. The article failed to mention the global water crisis, and was only concerned with the French goal to reduce bottled water, for the sake of reducing plastic waste. This article did not aim to redress the larger problem at hand, but solely explained the consumption needs and preference desires of the French population.

Other articles clearly had the savvy businessman in mind. In Investors dive into fast-rising water funds, advice was given on how to capitalize on the growing trend of water investments. “Demand is rising, since less than 1% of the planet’s water is drinkable and consumption increases as economies become more affluent. The UN estimates global water requirements will grow by 40% by 2020.” This statement was by no means alarmist, and had no humanitarian implications. Instead, it was a showcase of how important it might be to invest now, and invest wisely. In fact, the article went on to say, “water is scarce, and scarcity is a technology question.” This article and others like it excluded the gravity of the crisis as a whole, and framed water as nothing more than a commodity. In Severn Trent pushes for reform that would allow water to flow south, the Council for the Protection of Rural England was quoted as saying that “the proposals, if implemented, could harm local wildlife and local habitats.” But that problem was weakly addressed, and the article concluded with the British government “considering ways of introducing more competition into the industry.”

The articles that fell under the humanitarian-minded spectrum were quite varied. Two were clarion calls to international action in response to this truly global crisis. A third, Water security: Global disputes: Water wars loom as demand grows gave a solid yet broad description of the water debate, using many countries as examples but had little suggestions for solving the issue. Two more were political, and much of the attention was focused on the inability of the United Nations to do much about the looming crisis. The final article with a more altruistic approach was written in regards to the lack of water in Peru, but only insofar as it has affected the export of asparagus to the United Kingdom.

Prior awareness of international context is important to understand these six articles. Most of these articles were found in the International section, and were not concerned per se with business matters. Instead, the focus was on sociopolitical damage due to water misappropriation and failures on the international level to properly regulate the global water trade. The articles on Cambodia and Yemen were written to galvanize awareness and action. Phrases such as “It was very beautiful – now it’s like hell,” “sucked from groundwater,” “pulling millions of litres of water from the ground,” and “water tragedy” were commonly used. In my understanding of these articles, the authors seemed to be presenting the information in a way that might guilt Western readers into thinking twice about their own water usage. However, they provided little insight into how a realistic solution might be reached for current problems.

The most interesting article of the fifteen however was one written about South African water political politics. This article was an exception, as it articulately combined all three themes: it had a relatively dispassionate, scholarly tone, but artfully addressed both business and humanitarian concerns. The title of this article was Pay the true price of water: South Africa recognises that not all water use is a basic human right. The rest of us should follow. Based on the information my group had garnered during the first paper, I was a bit bothered by the fact that the author was suggesting that water should not be a human right. But as I read the article, I was quite impressed by the argument that was made:

The experience of South Africa teaches us that this does not need to be a binary decision. Its introduction of a household monthly allocation via its free basic water subsidy programme allows for basic sanitation, cooking and drinking water, while charging the full cost of the infrastructure for additional use.

This article not only provided an international perspective, but the controversy over what should and should not be considered a human right was carefully explicated. Due attention was given to both the economic and social implications, and the article offered a real suggestion and model for what other countries should do themselves. Allowing free access to water for basic needs such as drinking and hygiene satisfies humanitarian needs, while charging for industrial and additional purposes allows corporations to continue their capitalist methodology, whilst emphasizing the ever-important point that water is indeed a scarce resource.

In analyzing these pieces, the concepts of “Globalization from Above” and “imperialism” really stood out to me. Globalization from Above is a means by which we can understand the process of hegemonic capitalist strategies that transcend national borders. MNCs such as Coca-Cola, Nestle and other water utilities companies are seeking political and social dominance over the invaluable resource of water. This is tied into the concept of imperialism, whereby corporations from 1st world (ie. the colonizers) are exploiting resources and populations from the 3rd world (ie. the colonized).

What made analysis of this entire body of knowledge possible was my understanding of Connexity and media. I was able to appreciate how The Guardian enhanced a global understanding of the water crisis by humanizing events and critiquing political organizations. Conversely, The Guardian also limited connextity in many of its articles, whether by sensationalizing the problems of privatization, or by bypassing moral judgment and promoting ideologies of Western, capitalist superiority. By and large, it was the research I conducted for the first paper that shaped my opinion of water privatization. Articles in The Guardian helped to facilitate a healthy discourse, but without prior knowledge of the subject, I would have remained ambiguous – and possibly apathetic – towards this crucial international crisis of water wars.

© NaturAdvocate, written December 2010

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