Corporations Tap Public Water

Bottled Water Drains Life-Sustaining Resources

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.


Water Politics

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 interests.

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

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 at best.

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 popular

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.

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