Corporations Tap Public Water
Bottled Water Drains Life-Sustaining
by Stacy Folsom
Resist newsletter, May/June 2006
Water is precious and sustains all life
on earth. Increased demand for water is draining away the planet's
rivers, lakes, and other fresh water resources. Meanwhile, a profit-driven
industry increasingly controls water supplies globally. Critical
decisions about how people address the impending water crisis
will have tremendous implications for health and the environment
in the 2lS century.
In countries like the US, most water services
are hidden from public view and presumed readily available as
needed. Bottled water is an exception. Bottled water corporations
aim to make their vending machines a prominent fixture in our
daily lives, to brand the water we drink and turn it into a status
symbol. As a result, bottled water is the most visible example
of corporate control of our water. It provides us with a clear
and troubling snapshot of the attempted corporate conquest of
this precious resource.
To corporations, limited water supply
plus growing demand for water is a recipe for huge potential profits.
According to Fortune Magazine, "Water will be to the 2l century
what oil was to the 20th century." Corporations are tripping
over themselves to stake claims of blue gold. Suezthe corporation
made famous by building the Suez Canal-has become infamous for
snatching up government contracts to take over municipal water
systems. Nestlé is bottling water from springs and local
water sources. Coke and Pepsi are bottling tap water and selling
it back to the public for more than the cost of gasoline. In the
United States there is growing resistance to bottled water.
If transnational corporations control
our water, they can determine who gets it and who doesn't. Former
World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin predicted that wars
of the 21st century will be fought over water. People without
access to enough potable water will be disproportionately poor.
Rather than surrender to dehydration, most will drink unsafe water.
And over time, millions and millions of people may succumb to
diseases like cholera, typhoid fever, or dysentery.
Corporations have been meeting behind
closed doors for more than a decade, vying for control of the
world's water resources. Corporations such as Suez, Coke
and Nestlé have lobbied officials
at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to make industry-friendly
water policies a condition of developing countries' debt assistance.
They push trade ministers and officials at the World Trade Organization
to craft industry-biased trade agreements. And most recently,
in March of 2006, Coca-Cola sponsored the World Water Forum, where
giant corporations met with representatives of the United Nations,
governments and the World Bank, to promote profit-oriented water
policies around the world. (See the box on page 5 for more information.)
Supplying water is already a $400 billion
a year business, 30% larger than the pharmaceutical industry.
Even though bottled water accounts for a fraction of the total
volume of water used for consumption, sanitation, manufacturing
and agriculture, bottled water corporations currently claim a
lion's share of the water industry's profits. To ensure that the
profits keep coming, bottled water corporations are trying to
make sure that water policies around the world reflect their commercial
Bottled water is a fast-growing business,
valued at $55 billion worldwide in 2003. That's why corporations
like Coke, Nestlé and Pepsi are politically aligning themselves
with infamous water privatization corporations such as Suez. These
corporations are aggressively setting out to turn water into a
profit-driven commodity like oil, and spending huge sums of money
to steer the public and public policies in this direction.
Bottled water corporations, led by Coke,
Nestlé, and Pepsi, have sold us a bill of goods. Misleading
advertising is fueling the explosive growth of the bottled water
business. In 2002, bottled water corporations spent $93.8 million
to portray their products as 'pure,' 'safe,' 'clean,' 'healthy'
and superior to tap water-all claims with dubious scientific support
Today, half of all Americans drink bottled
water and one in six drink only bottled water, even though it
is much more expensive than tap water, and sometimes less safe.
Water bottling is one of the least regulated industries in the
US Food and Drug Adminstration oversight, and enforcement is greatly
inferior to Environmental Protection Agency rules for tap water
quality. The National Resource Defense Council's comprehensive
1999 study found various bottled water samples to contain elevated
levels of arsenic, bacteria, and other contaminants. Just over
a year ago Coke recalled 500,000 bottles of its Dasani brand in
the U.K. that contained elevated levels of the carcinogen bromate.
People are paying a high.price for this
deception. Ounce for ounce, bottled water is 240 to 10,000 times
more expensive than tap water. Adding insult to injury, more than
one-quarter of bottled water comes from public tap water-including
brands like Coke's Dasani and Pepsi's
Aquafina. And price gouging is only the beginning. Bottled water
corporations use their political and economic clout to secure
sweetheart deals, block legislative efforts to protect local water
rights and pursue costly and time-consuming litigation against
individuals and governments.
In Big Rapids, Michigan, concerned citi-
zens have been fighting Nestlé
for years. Nestlé's drained so much of the community's
water that it and caused serious damage to the local environment,
harming a stream, two lakes, and rich, diverse wetlands. A local
environmental group, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation
(MCWC), won a major court victory in 2003 that shut down the well
field where Nestlé bottled water. But Nestlé retaliated.
The corporation used its political leverage to co-opt the governor
and state chamber of commerce. It appealed the ruling and won
temporary permission to continue to extract and bottle 218 gallons
of water per minute. The citizens group is currently appealing
the case to the Michigan Supreme Court.
Unfortunately, Nestlé's story is
not unique. Communities affected by Coke's and Pepsi's dangerous
bottling practices in India are also eagerly awaiting a decision
from the nation's Supreme Court. Coke and Pepsi drain water from
some of the poorest communities in the world to make soft drinks.
Since Coke opened its plant in Mehdiganj, Uttar Pradesh, the water
tables have dropped more than 50 feet. Local farmers can no longer
access enough water to irrigate crops or meet their basic needs.
Outside Coke's plant in Plachimada, Kerala, hundreds of wells
dried up and water quality declined. The Nation magazine reports
local people getting rashes from affected water supplies. Local
authorities shut the Plachimada plant down. Then Coke used its
political power to get concessions from the Kerala High Court.
The community appealed to India's High Court, and communities
across the country anxiously await the ruling.
Challenging Corporate Advertising
The reality behind the slick PR and marketing
is this: Bottled water threatens our health and our ecosystems,
costs thousands of times what tap water costs, and undermines
local democratic control over a common resource. Bottled water
corporations take water from underground springs and municipal
sources without regard to scarcity or human rights. Corporations
are trying to make a profit-driven commodity out of a precious
resource that rightfully and historically have been a public good.
Corporations seem to be relying on public
apathy and ignorance while they privatize water for their profit.
However, people are paying close attention. For example, across
the US activists are joining Corporate Accountability International
to stand up to the abuses of bottled water corporations by getting
involved in the "Think Outside the Bottle Campaign."
The campaign is a direct challenge to the marketing muscle and
myths of the bottled water industry. Organizers and volunteers
in over a dozen cities have organized Tap Water Challenges, to
test Coke's, Nestlé's and Pepsi's bottled water advertising.
Thousands of people have signed postcards telling the corporations'
CEOs to stop their misleading advertising. And hundreds of individuals,
community and religious groups have ordered campaign kits to get
their communities involved.
Global Treaty to Protect Water Rights
Already, over one billion people around
the world don't have access to safe water to drink and more than
a million children die of diseases caused by unsafe water every
year. As problems of water scarcity and access intensify, these
numbers will rise. The United Nations estimates that two out of
three people will not have access to enough water by 2025, putting
millions more lives at risk.
A growing movement is exploring options
for enforceable legal instruments to prevent the privatization
and commodification of water resources, and to protect public
access to water. The global tobacco treaty-formally known as the
World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control-is
one possible model. Just as the global tobacco treaty protects
public health policies from tobacco industry interference, corporations
like Coke and Suez should be kept away from water policies. Just
as tobacco corporations are required to disclose information on
health risks, bottling corporations
should be required to disclose how much
water they extract and other relevant environmental and health
information. And just as Big Tobacco must be held financially
responsible for costly health problems caused by its products,
corporations like Coke and Nestlé should pay back communities
for damages they have done.
Non-governmental organizations from around
the world and thousands of protestors converged in Mexico City
during the Fourth World Water Forum with one clear and unifying
message: Water is a fundamental human right, not a commodity to
be bought and sold for profit. As tran s-national corporations
increasingly try to control water supplies, international resistance
builds. People around the world are calling for global solutions.
Critical decisions about the world's water must be made democratically,
in full public view, by government officials who are accountable.
Decisions about a life-giving substance and human right must not
be left to transnational corporations and corporate shareholders.
Stacey Folsom is senior international
organizer with Corporate Accountability International (formerly
INFACT). For more information, contact CAL 46 Plympton Street,
Boston, MA 02118; www stopcorporateabuse. org.