When I randomly mentioned that my next assignment may include a recent Nestle scandal, all my mother said in reply was: »Oh, Nestle, the chocolate company?« At first I smirked and wanted to correct her, but I quickly realised that there was a time before the Swiss company was one of the largest food and drink conglomerates in the world. Nowadays, the company is involved in many different industries, such as baby food, cereal (Nesquik cereal, Fitness…), chocolate (Kit-Kat, Smarties…), coffee (Nescafe…) and culinary (Thomy, Maggi…) just to name a few, while the company also holds almost a quarter stake in L’Oréal, the world’s largest cosmetics company. While Nestle have dealt with a great number of controversies in their 153 years of existence, such as the Ethiopian debt crisis and their role in the deforestation in Ghana and Ivory Coast, I will focus on a much more global issue, which is their role and position on water privatisation through Nestle Waters, the no. 1 bottled water company in the world since 2008, with brands like Arrowhead, Pure Life and S.Pellegrino.
Water privatization is by no means a new problem, but its becoming increasingly important as the world is starting to see and feel the affects of climate change, such as increasing extremes of drought and rainfall, raising temperatures and of course the recent forest fires in both the State of California and Australia. While the United Nations see water as a human right, Nestle’s position on the matter can perhaps be best illustrated by a statement from a now former Nestle CEO Peter Brabeck: »The one opinion, which I think is extreme, is represented by the NGOs, who bang on about declaring water a public right. That means that as a human being you should have a right to water. That’s an extreme solution. The other view says that water is a foodstuff like any other, and like any other foodstuff it should have a market value.«
Brabeck did correct himself later on, stating that 25 litres of water a day per person should be a human right. He goes on to state that anything exceeding said amount should have a price, saying that overconsumption of water will cause humanity to run out of water sooner than oil, his solution of course being water privatisation.
There is no denying that water scarcity is already becoming a huge problem all around the world. According to the UN, nearly 2/3 of the world’s population experiences severe water scarcity at least one month a year, adding that water use has risen at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century.
Part of the problem is that there is no global governance system for water. It is usually managed at a local level, and usually not very successfully, which gives companies like Nestle an opportunity for exploitation. Springs in US states of Florida and California and in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and British Columbia are just a few of the recent examples where Nestle have gained access to springs for next to nothing, while heavily profiting from the sales of bottled water from them. In 2018, Nestle Waters had a profit of more than 7.8 bn US dollars, while their only expense is usually a relatively small donation to the local community, ensuring their support. The company also promises the creation of new jobs, which is often exaggerated, and the little amount of jobs created are usually low-paying and dangerous.
In August news broke out of Nestle’s plans to pump 1.1 million gallons of water per day from Ginnie Springs, the main water source for Florida’s Santa Fe River, a river already deemed as »in recovery« as the result of overpumping in recent years. This seemed to finally change the attitude of the local community regarding Nestle, as they have started petitions to stop Suwanee River Water Management District from signing the permit. The company also faced serious backlash for sourcing water in especially drought-stricken areas, such as Canadian provinces of Ontario and British Columbia as well as the US states of California and Arizona. The latter’s water-bottling plant was closed after intense public backlash and petitions, while many Canadians are signing petitions to boycott Nestle products and bottled water all together.
It should be noted that such practices are not limited to North America, nor is Nestle the lone bad guy in this story. One institution with a huge incentive in water privatisation is the World Bank Group with a long history supporting such practices in Indonesia and India, while enforcing water privatisation on poor countries in need of a loan. However, a 2019 Lagos water summit urged the African governments to reject the institution’s water privatization projects, which have been known to raise the bills, reduce the quality of water and leave the city with dry taps.
If I may circle back to Brabeck’s statement, water is a finite resource and we should not be using as much of it as we currently are, but putting a price on something is not the only way to make sure something is not being overused. Brabeck’s privatisation solution can only be seen as an attempt for companies to make even more profits in a world of suffering and chaos.
The UN demands that water be seen as a scarce resource, with a stronger focus being on managing demand. One such example can be found in Cape Town, the largest city in the Republic of South Africa, where after years of overusing water, the city narrowly escaped »day zero«, a day when the water supply would simply run out. But the city averted such a scenario with aggressive campaigns to conserve, recycle and use water more efficiently. Heavy restrictions, such as a limit of 105 litres of water per person a day (it was a mere 50 litres in 2018), regardless of whether you are at home or at work, are still in place today, and while they may not be the ideal scenario for Capetonians, it still beats water privatisation, which often leads to job losses and a rise in corruption.
Finally, it should be noted that there is no life without clean water, which is far to big of a responsibility to be entrusted to private companies and the free market. While researching Nestle’s water policy and especially while listening to their former CEO saying water should not be a human right and the necessity of water having a market value, I could not help but see the connection between Nestle and Immortan Joe, the villain from George Miller’s 2015 movie Mad Max: Fury Road. »Do not, my friends, become addicted to water,« said Joe to his thirsty and disfigured audience, worshipping him for providing them with a small amount of his aqua-cola. »It will take hold off you, and you will resent its absence.«