For decades, ecologists and environmental watchdog groups have warned that water scarcity will be one of the most pressing challenges humanity will soon have to face. Based on current trends, the United Nations predicts that close to 2 billion people will experience severe water shortages by 2025. While it’s easy to say “that can’t happen here” and tell yourself that clean water will never stop flowing from your faucet, several U.S. states or cities have already faced water shortages in recent years, and experts warn that more are on the way. Due to crumbling infrastructure and changes in rainfall patterns, water shortages have become a real issue for many Americans. One recent study published by economists and ecologists at Michigan State predicts that more than a third of Americans might be unable to pay their water bills by 2023 due to the rising costs of repairing 60-year-old infrastructure. And in the face of all of this, Nestlé, the largest food and drink company in the world, has created a multi-billion dollar bottled water empire in the last few decades by securing access to water supplies through leveraging its influence and extracting them – all while paying next to nothing for the water.
What’s being done about this looming crisis?
Unfortunately, not much. Water safety often takes a backseat to more controversial or hot-button issues, particularly in today’s political climate. Even worse, that inattention has allowed some of the world’s largest multinational corporations to step in and make the oncoming water crisis even worse. Nestlé now dominates the bottled water market — an industry that boasts $16 billion in sales in America annually — thanks to its ability to entice (or “persuade” with its fleet of lawyers when push comes to shove) economically disadvantaged communities to grant them rights to their water by promising to bring new jobs and a jolt to the local economy. Of course, all of this is done in exchange for tax breaks, with the result being that Nestle pays practically nothing for the water it makes nearly $8 billion a year selling.
Former Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe summed up the company’s view on the commodification and monopolization of water sources in a 2005 interview, stating that the company does not believe water to be a human right. “One perspective held by various NGOs—which I would call extreme—is that water should be declared a human right,” Brabeck-Letmathe says. “The other view is that water is a grocery product. And just as every other product, it should have a market value.” His predecessor Helmut Maucher said in a 1994 interview with the New York Times: “Springs are like petroleum. You can always build a chocolate factory. But springs you have or you don’t have.”
Nestlé has been the target of frequent criticism in recent years over this strategy of buying up rights to local water supplies and then selling the bottled water back to consumers at extreme mark-ups.
In Michigan, where the still-ongoing water crisis in Flint revealed how fragile many cities’ water supplies truly are, Nestlé bottles its Ice Mountain Natural Spring Water and Pure Life bottled water from local sources and sells it to this hard-hit community for a total of $343 million a year. For the rights to those water sources, Nestlé pays just $200 a year. And this happens all across the country and even the world, like in British Columbia, Canada where Nestle literally doesn’t pay a single cent for the millions of liters of water it bottles and sells back to the residents.
How does Nestlé get away with it?
For one, many states in the U.S. have outdated or antiquated laws as far as water rights are concerned. In some states, a 19th-century law known as “absolute capture” allows landowners to take as much groundwater off of their land as they want. In Mecosta County, Michigan, Nestlé withdraws spring water directly from sources, which some environmental groups say damages streams, rivers, and fragile wetland habitats. A few lawsuits in the 2000s forced Nestlé to reduce their pumping rate, but disputes are still ongoing. However, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) recently approved Nestlé’s request to pump even more water out of the White Pine Springs well in the Great Lakes Basin despite receiving over 80,000 public comments against the request – and just 75 in favor. In the wake of that decision, Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith reported that the top three themes of these 80,000+ comments were “corporate greed versus people and the environment;” the idea that “water is not for profit;” and “worries about privatizing water.” Still, MDEQ stands by their decision, claiming the permit was in full compliance with the law. “It is very clear this permit decision is of great interest to not only residents in the surrounding counties, but to Michiganders across the state as well,” MDEQ Director C. Heidi Grether said in approving the permit. “In full transparency, the majority of the public comments were in opposition of the permit, but most of them related to issues of public policy which are not, and should not be, part of an administrative permit decision.”
Critics and environmental activists, argue that water security should not be in the hands of profit-driven multinational corporations. The issue of what happens to the billions of plastic bottles used to contain that water is another issue – and a massive one. It’s estimated that as much as 80% of plastic water bottles end up in landfills. For their part, Nestlé acknowledges claims that water scarcity is a major risk to their operations moving forward, but maintains that they take all necessary environmental precautions to ensure they do not overburden already-fragile water sources.
Should Nestlé be able to pay a few hundred bucks a year for a natural resource it sells back to the public for billions?