The Illusion of Equality: Is water a human “right”?

This video from 2005 showing clips from a film called Bottled Life contains three statements from Nestlé Chairman Peter Brabeck.

All three statements by Mr. Brabeck deal with issues that affect Nestlé’s economic status and they all come together to create an extremely negative impression of Mr. Brabeck. Part of one of his comments about water contains this sentence:

“The one opinion, which I think is extreme, is represented by the NGOs, who bang on about declaring water a public right. That means as a human being you should have a right to water. That’s an extreme solution.”:

I reacted strongly and felt the need to post the video. Several things became apparent as I started looking into the matter. On Wikipedia I counted 74 brands of water. But water bottles are far from being the only thing Nestlé produces. Its over 2000 brands include several that use water as a main ingredient and in their production. However, Nestlé is not alone in using water in this manner. When I discovered Huffington Post’s background story on the 2005 video, I worried that I had been unfair to Néstle. So I dug a bit more into the issue of water in the world. One of the things that came up was a film that was published in January 2007 by DokLab called Bottled Life.

Bottled life was challenged by Nestlé and they made up a list of questions that they answered (on their website). DokLab created its own page showing these questions/answers and DokLab commented on each of Nestlé’s questions. This is an example of what that “debate” looks like:

“8. Is it true that Nestlé is responsible for the drop in the groundwater level around the village of Bhati Dilwan in Pakistan, which has caused many springs in the area to dry up?

Nestlé: No. Nestlé Waters is committed to managing the water resources we operate around the world in a responsible manner.  For example, the Sheikhupura factory in Pakistan close to the village of Bhati Dilwan operates two deep wells for its bottling activity. Both wells are equipped with the instrumentation necessary to monitor the key hydrodynamic parameters (including flow rate and water level) on a continuous basis.  This extensive monitoring allows us to identify any risks and to take immediate action to mitigate them to avoid negatively impacting the local aquifer system.

DokLab: In Sheikupura, Nestlé is extracting water from two deep wells and selling it at a high profit. The population there has no means to draw its own drinking water from wells of this kind. In the past years, receding groundwater levels have become a fact of alarming magnitude. The extent, to which Nestlé with its two deep wells is contributing to this decline, is known only to the corporation itself. In order to expand its production of bottled water in Sheikupura, Nestlé was subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment in 2007. The report required subsequent amendments. However, Nestlé never published the amended document. Why not?

My interest rose another notch. In Norway we pay taxes to have clean water reach our taps. Beyond that we can choose to buy or not buy bottled drinking products. Fresh water is over-abundant in Norway and we, and our farmers, sometimes wish the distribution of it was a bit fairer. Other areas of the world are not so lucky and their need can make a tempting target for corporations who are looking mainly to line their shareholders’ pockets with even more money.

According to Shuval (1992) the Minimum Water Requirement for vital human consumption in arid areas like the Middle East is about 125 m3 per person per year (Shuval & Dweik, 2007). Nestlé and its peers, corporations in other fields (like oil companies, especially using the drilling method called “fracking“) and various countries seem to use this basic need for water to push products and/or create problems. The below examples illustrate what incredible power lies in controlling fresh-water access around the world. NOT A SINGLE ONE of these cases show the altruism on the side of corporations. If they appear altruistic, it seems as if they use that appearance to earn more money.

2006 Bechtel Corporation vs. Bolivia

In 1998 IMF (International Monetary Fund) lent Boliva $ 128 million on the condition that they “sell off “all remaining public enterprises,” including national oil refineries and Cochabamba’s local water agency, SEMAPA” (Frontline). The buyer was a subsidiary of the Bechtel Corporation, Aguas del Tunari. This purchase led to such a steep increase in the rates people had to pay for their water that strikes arose. Eventually, Aguas del Tunari was forced to let SEMAPA return to the hands of the Bolivian government. In 2001 Aguas del Tunari started their fight to get the Bolivan government to pay damages.(Frontline) January 2006 saw the settlement of this case. Bolivia would not pay Bechtel or Aguas del Tunary any money. In return they had to absolve both of any possible blame in the matter. (Vis-Dunbar & Peterson)

2008: Vital Water Graphics: An Overview of the State of the World’s Fresh and Marine Waters

«Economists can highlight and quantify the benefits flowing from water, like hydroelectricity, and help build what we call a baskets of benefits. It is generally easier and more equitable to allocate the benefits than the water itself. Economists also remind us of the need to recover the cost of water delivery, treatment, storage and so on. But we’re often pushed to think in terms of water markets — buying and selling water as a commodity even though this has never happened internationally in a practical sense. As someone who is committed to water emotionally, aesthetically, religiously and for ecosystems, I am reluctant to think of water as just another economic good.» (Aaron Wolf, geographer, University of Oregon, United-States)

2009 May: CODE VIOLATIONS in times of emergencies

“Many Code violations in emergencies have been perpetrated by baby food companies, international and national NGOs, governments, the military and individuals. This typically reflects poor awareness of Code provisions and takes the form of PR campaigns, general distribution to health care facilities and households, failure to monitor breastmilk substitute use and inappropriate labelling.” Nestlè and Danone run neck-to-neck to control the world market. (UNHCR)

2012 Aug 12: Oregon at the Forefront of Battle Against Nestle Water Grab

“Oregon is at the forefront of the Nestlé battle. Members of the Keep Nestlé out of the Gorge Coalition are fighting to prevent the construction of a water bottling facility in the Columbia River Gorge city of Cascade Locks. The diverse coalition, representing consumer advocacy, labor, religious, environmental, and public health groups, has been defending Oregon’s public water resources for over three years in the campaign against Nestlé.”

2012 Aug 28: Water-Shortage Crisis Escalating in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin

“The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, originating in Turkey and cutting through both Syria and Iraq, have experienced drastic reductions in water flows in recent years due, primarily, to Turkish hydro-engineering and regional droughts. This is of significance for Iraq, which has historically prospered because of the rich agricultural harvests based on water supplies sourced from these waterways. Turkish initiatives aimed at massively expanding their exploitation of the water from the two rivers have coincided with severe droughts in the region and resulted in a burgeoning water-shortage crisis in Iraq. This problem threatens an environmental catastrophe. Political negotiations between the three countries have so far fallen short of reaching agreement on providing the necessary increases in flow rates to address the deteriorating situation in Iraq.” (Bolded by ed)

2013 Nov: States Focusing on Water Right Issues

“…controversy arises because water impacts are localized, and hydraulic fracturing operations occur (and are expanding) in some of the country’s most arid and drought-stricken regions, including states such as North Dakota, Colorado, California and portions of Texas. In some areas, the impacts of fracturing on already scare water resources is cited as a potential reason for delaying permitting or approval of new wells, conducting further study of the impacts, or even banning fracturing altogether.”

2014 Feb 6: Egypt and Ethiopia spar over the Nile

“… the rhetoric of water wars over the Nile misses the crucial voice of marginalized indigenous populations — whose lives are altered by these state-sponsored megaprojects. While the construction of the Aswan Dam in Egypt and a smaller one in Sudan have enabled the two countries to develop thriving agro-industries, they caused wanton destruction to the Nubian people’s ancient way of life.  As a result of the secrecy surrounding the Nile discussions and the lack of tolerance for political dissent in all three countries, there is little discussion of the dam’s impact on indigenous communities and the horrendous environmental consequences.” (Hassen Hussein)

2014 Mar 3: Water: Conflict and Cooperation in Israel’s Jordan River Valley (ILLUSTRATED)

“In more recent maps drawn for subsequent iterations of U.S. and internationally-brokered peace talks between Israel and the PA, most of the mountainous Samaria and Judea regions, along with the Jordan River Valley, are drawn as a Palestinian state, plus today’s Hamas-controlled Gaza, all the way to the Egyptian border.”

2015 Mar 05: Danone, Nestlé and Lactalis fined for roles in alleged Spanish raw milk cartel

“Eleven dairies, including Danone, Nestlé and Lactalis, have been fined nearly €90m for allegedly colluding on the price paid to Spanish farmers for raw milk.”

2015 Jan 12: Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact

“Minimum Reservoir Pool Elevations. Minimum Reservoir Pool Elevations attached hereto as Appendix 3.1 shall be enforceable according to the schedule specified in Appendix 3.4.  Enforceability of Minimum Reservoir Pool Elevations is subject to Article IV.E, Appendix 3.5, and superseding Federal law allowing for regulation of reservoir elevations.” (Proposed Water Rights Contract)

2015 Mar 20: Nestle Continues Stealing World’s Water During Drought:

“Nestlé is draining California aquifers, from Sacramento alone taking 80 million gallons annually. Nestlé then sells the people’s water back to them at great profit under many dozen brand names.”

2015 Apr 10-12: Health and Environment Laws Swept Away: Trans-Pacific Partnership Says if a Corporation Claims it’s True, it Must be True

“…a judge ruled in favor of Vivendi Universal against Argentina in a failed water-privatization scheme, and her ruling was allowed to stand even though the judge served on the board of a bank that was a major investor in Vivendi. The TPP is completely silent on conflicts of interest. The leaked TPP chapter reveals for the first time that ICSID would hear disputes brought under TPP.”

2015 May 05: The Economist: Water, water everywhere (Maori Rights in New Zealand)

“The Maori claim a special relationship with New Zealand’s fresh water, based on their historical use of its rivers for drinking water, spiritual beliefs, fishing and shellfish harvest, transport and trade, among other things.”

2016 November 04: Daily Mail UK: Food, water fears remain year after Brazil mine dam disaster

“Upward of 10 billion gallons of mud filled with mining waste buried towns in the Nov. 5 dam break that has been described as the worst environmental disaster in Latin America’s largest country …

… A judge has ordered Samarco— a venture between giants Vale of Brazil and BHP Billiton of Australia— to pay for independent studies, but it’s unclear when results will be released.”


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