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Who cares about water?

Communities, companies, and environmentalist grandmas

Text and Image: Harriet Smith

‘Water can’t be free’, at least according to former Nestlé chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe. In a ten minute YouTube video on the subject, I was surprised to find not everything he said was nonsense, yet he lacked some crucial analysis, inherent to his (then) position as chairman of one of the largest multinational corporations in the world. At first glance, it appears questionable to place a financial value on a resource required for survival. But is commoditization of water as bad as it sounds?

Often (mis)quoted as saying water is not a human right, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe clarifies that more than 25 litres of water per day is not a human right, with this number chosen as his minimum ‘to live decently’. His class analysis that overconsumption of water contributes to global inequality is true, including his position that swimming pools and golf courses are a luxury. His concern that poor infrastructure loses a significant amount of water annually is valid. However, his conclusion that ‘if the value of water is zero, any investment will never yield’, is an endorsement of a capitalist free market where everything should be for sale, comparable by financial value. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe views water first and foremost as a commodity, unsurprising for the chairman of a company making billions from bottled water sales annually. Perhaps this is why he views consumers as the problem, apparently unwilling to pay enough for water. He considers the ‘water crisis’ a primary concern for the future of humanity. Then, what is the role and responsibility of multinational corporations, especially those selling bottled water?

Firstly, no company on earth produces water. Instead, they extract from a water source, processing the water to meet regulatory requirements. Water is a vital resource. Yet, one in four people do not have access to a safely managed water service at home. Bottled water may sometimes be a necessity, but the commoditization of water allows some to profit enormously from a basic human right. Water access is uneven and contextually specific. Therefore, I will narrow my focus to Michigan specifically. However, it is just one story of unethical water extraction, illustrating a shift towards water as a commodity in a broader sense.

Welcome to Michigan

The Great Lakes in the United States are the largest freshwater lakes on earth, totalling roughly 20% of the world’s supply of surface freshwater. Lake Michigan is one of these five interconnected lakes, enticing Nestlé in 2000. Nestlé’s bottled water production centre is located a two hour drive from Flint. Located in Michigan state, Flint is the centre of an infamous water poisoning scandal, a result of poor government oversight, mismanagement, and systemic racism. The 626 million dollars settlement case and criminal trials are ongoing, including against the former Governor of Michigan Rick Snyder. However, the water scandals in Michigan are broader still, a tangled web of politicians and corporations viewing water resources as a financial opportunity.

On April 25th in 2014, due to financial pressures, it was decided that water in Flint could no longer be purchased from Detroit, with new plans created to draw from a local water source. The Flint River was only a temporary solution, but high chloride content in the river water eroded old lead pipes leading to lead-contaminated water affecting roughly one hundred thousand people. Lead poisoning affects the brain and nervous system and has continued to affect birth outcomes. Boiling water does not remove lead either, and large public billboards were placed around the city reminding residents that they could not use their tap water for drinking, cooking, bathing, or cleaning. Residents of Flint were left without potable water for six years. Eight years on, politicians say that the water is safe to drink, yet many residents are unhappy with the poor water quality and remaining infrastructure issues.

The link between Flint and Nestlé is not immediately obvious. However, when reporter Amy Goodman visited Flint in 2016, the National Guard was handing out bottles of Ice Mountain, a subsidiary of Nestlé at the time (now part of BlueTriton Brands). This water was extracted and bottled in Michigan, against the complaints of numerous concerned residents. As many residents in Flint continue to distrust tap water, they are forced to purchase bottled water. This allows Nestlé and other bottled water companies to continue to profit from a public health crisis, especially as bottled water is typically 3000% more expensive than tap water.

Water is actually rarely free to the ‘consumer’. In Flint, residents faced some of the highest water prices in Michigan. They were paying roughly $140 per month on average, even while the water was unsafe and they had to rely on bottled water. Simultaneously, Nestlé paid as little as $200 annually, and received $13million in tax breaks for locating their plant in Michigan. Nestlé pays for a government permit and local land leasing, rather than water extraction itself. Therefore increasing water extraction incurs no increased cost for corporations. It seems convenient that the (former) chairman of Nestlé completely failed to mention how little bottled water companies pay for their water, when bottled water typically has a profit margin of 50-200%.

Politicians and corporations are intertwined due to lobbying. Nestlé’s annual lobbying and campaign contributions are known to total millions each year, at both federal and state levels. In 2015, during Flint’s water crisis, the Governor of Michigan was Rick Snyder. His chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore proposed spending $250,000 on Nestlé’s water, Ice Mountain as a temporary measure to deal with the lead poisoned water. Interestingly, this occurred while his wife Deborah Muchmore was employed by Nestlé, as a lobbyist and public relations consultant. (Former) Governor Rick Snyder’s name appears again in 2018, when Nestlé applied to increase water extraction from 250 to 400 gallons per minute in Evart, Michigan. The government’s computer modelled simulation of increased extraction suggested this would cause negative environmental impacts. However, this was overruled. The government instead relied upon data provided by Nestlé which considered increased extraction as sustainable. In a public consultation on the issue, there were 75 public comments in support and comments against the proposal; the increased pumping was approved by Michigan authorities anyway. This was also while Snyder’s chief of staff’s wife worked directly for Nestlé.

Nestlé’s extraction efforts are not without resistance. Since they entered Michigan in 2000, a collective of concerned grandmas founded Michigan citizens for water conservation to ‘protect water resources from corporate theft’. They say that ‘streams have become mud holes as they sell us back our own water’. In Evart, the jobs Nestlé promised never materialised and instead upgrades to local softball fields were provided. Offers to replace local infrastructure like bridges have been cited as an attempt to cover up the evidence of damage. Infrastructure upgrades would remove historic water marks which demonstrate how low water levels have fallen because of Nestlé’s water extraction.

Nestlé’s approach may still be legally compliant. However, they are repeatedly accused of going to economically impoverished communities, taking their water and selling it back to them (or onto others). The small communities that bottled water companies typically enter are easily enticed by initial pay-outs. They are unaware of the magnitude of extraction and the long term impacts of changing the water levels of the local ecosystem. Michigan, comprising 54% African-Americans, has a poverty rate higher than the average across the United States. As well as economic impoverishment, official reports concluded that systemic racism also played a role in the slow and inadequate response to the water crisis. Michigan is only one example: Nestlé has also recently fought legal battles in California’s Strawberry Creek that follow an eerily similar pattern.

Freshwater is a finite renewable resource. How it is extracted and distributed is therefore extremely important. Criticism of overconsumption by individuals remains relevant, but corporations should be criticised extensively too. The chairman of Nestlé is perhaps not the person best placed to do this. Viewing water as a commodity for sale serves the interests of the bottled water companies, rather than the communities for whom water is a human right, still not universally accessible.

3 more reasons to hate bottled water (and the companies producing them)

Bottled water is not just a problem due to the questionable ethics of extraction though. There are more reasons to avoid bottled water too. Because time is valuable, and paper too, I’ve compiled a short list for you.

1. Plastic pollution

The 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report states that we must ‘take action now’ to at least limit devastating outcomes from global warming. Reducing fossil fuels has become a necessity. Plastic represents over 5% of global oil use and millions of barrels of oil are utilised each year to produce single use plastic bottles. Over one million plastic bottles are sold annually, which typically have a five-hundred year life span. Less than 20% of these are recycled, while the majority end up in landfill and in our oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of several areas in our oceans filled with a concentrated amount of plastic pollution. It covers an area estimated to be three times the size of France, or around thirty-nine times the size of the Netherlands. This scale of pollution has an unprecedented impact. Microplastics are now an emerging threat to marine and human life. Using less plastic is thus better for the planet.

2. Wastes water and energy

Bottled water is incredibly energy intensive, with energy utilised in production of plastic, bottles, water treatment, packaging, and transportation. The water usage is even more shocking. The International Bottled Water Association would remind us that ‘bottled water has the lowest water use and energy use ratios of any packaged beverage’, but one litre of water utilises 1.39 litres of water. This is only the water production process itself, not the plastic; plastic production has a significant water footprint. In a 2011 study by Water Footprint Network, researchers estimated that between 3-5.3 litres of water were required for a typical single use water bottle. Then more water is used to produce the paper label affixed to the outside. A typical plastic water bottle is 500ml, but there could be more than 5.5 litres of water used to produce it. Can this level of waste for convenience ever be justified?

3. Environmental destruction

While water extraction faces minimal legal limitations in the United States, it depletes groundwater reserves. Water extraction by companies has been implicated in recent droughts and ecosystem destruction. Depletion of groundwater also contributes to sea level rise, as aquifer depletion increases the movement of water into the sea. In an age of climate crisis, we must surely prevent any unnecessary continuing environmental damage that serves profit not people.

Don’t give up hope!

We don’t have to just tolerate the damage caused by the bottled water industry; lobbying doesn’t just have to be done by corporations. We have power in solidarity. There is a plethora of interconnected environmental justice groups growing globally. Local intentional communities, connected by political goals, shift consensus to create political change. Furthermore, while some say there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, consumers can make better informed choices. We have the ability to boycott brands we do not wish to support. There is power in our words and actions. There is hope inherent to our interconnected nature.

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