The Rising Specter of Privatizing Our Water

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Last September, following the maudlin national political conventions, Peculiar Progressive wrote about the five vital issues the political parties didn’t want to face. You can read about those five vital realities here. Issue number one is water.

thThe bottom line: The earth’s fresh water is decreasing. The world’s aquifers are being diminished faster than nature can refill them.

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The specter: While this is occurring, an effort is also rising to privatize the world’s water. Nestlé is at the forefront of this effort.

Nestlé, the Swiss multinational nutritional, snack food, and health-related consumer goods company, is the world’s largest food company via revenues. Its bottle water division, Nestlé Waters, produces and distributes 64 brands including Aquarel, Arrowhead Water, Contrex, Deer Park Spring Water, Ice Mountain, Nestlé Pure Life, Ozarka, Perrier, Poland Spring, and San Pellegrino.

In its most recent effort at capturing public water for private profit, Nestlé Waters North America is looking to finalize an exclusive 45-year contract with the water company for Fryeburg, Maine (pop. 3,449), which sits on the Saco River. Under the contract, Nestle will pay $240,000 a year to annually draw a minimum of 75 million gallons in water for private bottling and distribution.

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Last week, Maine Gov. Paul LePage received a petition with 136,000 signatures protesting the contract. The effort is to update a 16-year-old pact with Nestlé’s Poland Spring water. Opponents are concerned about the length of the extension with no public input on the process. A spokesman for Poland Spring said any opponents have a process for filing complaints. You can read about the Fryeburg situation here.

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A 2010 story in The Colorado Independent provides a more specific description of the Nestlé process with the company’s plan to drain millions of gallons of fresh water from the Arkansas River in Colorado:

If things go according to plan, in about a month someone at Nestle Waters North America will turn a valve and water will begin running out of a pipeline near Buena Vista and will splash into an empty 8,000-gallon tanker truck. It will take roughly an hour for the truck to fill, and then another truck will take its place. The water will run 24 hours a day, filling approximately 25 trucks each day, every day.

The trucks will drive 120 miles to a Nestle bottling plant in Denver where the water will be used to fill hundreds and thousands and millions of little plastic Arrowhead Springs water bottles, which will then be trucked to convenience markets, grocery stores, movie theaters, and sports palaces around the West. Each month, Nestle will fill roughly 40.4 million 16.9 ounce bottles with the water from the area’s Nathrop spring. By the end of a year, 65 million gallons of Arkansas Valley water will have been driven to Denver, bottled, driven somewhere else, and sold.

There was opposition in Colorado, too. As reporter Scot Kersgaard tells it:

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Not everyone is happy about this. Buena Vista and Salida have birthed a protest movement that has been more noisy than effective. By some estimates, 80 percent of the roughly 17,000 people in Chaffee County are opposed to this diversion of water. Still, when it came time to issue permits, the three-member Board of County Commissioners was unanimous in approving Nestle’s plans.

In the end, it was probably a combination of fear and Old-West style property rights values that carried the day for Nestle.

You can read that full story here.

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Water privatization protest poster

These are just two instances involving the world’s largest producer of bottled water at turning public water into private profit. Just as disturbing as a multi-national corporation and local politicians going against local residents’ concerns: the attitude of Nestlé leadership toward privatizing water. In recent years, a video interview with Nestlé’s chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe has emerged. In it, he says water supply is “not a human right,” and water should be “valued” through privatization. In other words, don’t drink it unless you can pay for it.

Yes, even public water utilities charge for water consumption, but the rates are subject to public hearing and political pressures. That seems less of a possibility with privatization, no matter the political rhetoric that surrounds it.

You can see the video interview with Brabeck-Letmathe here.

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The problem is that areas suffering from a lack of water often can’t afford to pay for it. And human nature shows that, where there’s a lack of a resource, greed creeps in to gouge the consumer. Such a case occurred recently in Zimbabwe, where residents have to purchase water from illegal water traders. According to the Inter Press Service News Agency, “These new illegal businesses are the result of the dire need for water, as rationing in towns and cities continues because of shortages of water treatment chemicals in this southern African nation.”

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We also see the plight elsewhere in the world. Richard Whittell, co-author of the book Resisting Reform: Water Profits and Democracy, reports about England on opendemocracy.net. Last week he reported about the company Severn Trent, which supplies water across the Midlands and parts of Wales. Investment consortium LongRiver Partners is attempting to take over the company. Summarizing Whittell’s article, opendemocracy.net notes:

Severn Trent is the latest water company to be targeted for takeover by a motley group of investment funds. An analysis of their past deals reveals huge profits, meagre tax bills and a seemingly casual approach to ethical concerns. Once again public assets are turned into wealth for the few.

These new, illegal businesses are the result of the dire need for water, as rationing in towns and cities continues because of shortages of water treatment chemicals in this southern African nation. – See more at: http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/06/making-a-business-out-of-water-rationing/#sthash.ccbSLI3e.dpuf

Reuters reported last week that Singapore’s private water companies are looking to profit greatly from China’s plan to spend over $850 billion in response to the country’s “scarce and polluted water supplies.” And the Singapore firms are increasing as they see global water supply needs:

Since 2006, the number of companies in Singapore’s water sector has doubled to about 100 and S$470 million ($371.2 million) has been committed to fund water research, government data shows. Over the same period, Singapore-based water companies secured more than 100 international projects worth close to S$9 billion.

As global aquifers diminish and population grows, the craving for water, and the private sector’s efforts to control supply will grow. That’s the nature of corporatism. It will be up to the world’s citizens to get organized, get educated, and get active so they can protect their local interests in their water supplies, through regulation, legislation, and the courts.