There are essentially two things we absolutely need to survive in the very short term.
One is obviously air, the second is water. You can go only 3 minutes without air and about 3 days without water (1). While food is a necessity, you can survive much longer without sustenance—Mahatma Gandhi claims to have survived 21 days with no food whatsoever.
But because the human body is about 70 percent water, if you do not replenish that water daily, it will ultimately wither and die a horrible death.
Air is free, and essentially a public right. Many people feel that water should also be a public right, especially since everyone will die without it. Others like Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the CEO of Nestlé , the 27th largest company in the world, feel that water is like any other foodstuff—a commodity with a monetary value that should be bought and sold as such (2).
While Brabeck’s views may serve Nestlé and its shareholders, it certainly doesn’t do much for the masses of people in the world that simply can’t afford to pay for something as essential as water. And it’s not only Brabeck’s views on the privatization of water that have concerned citizens in an uproar; it’s the fact that Nestlé appears to go to any length to get the water they then sell back to the public, regardless of who or what it hurts (3, 4).
As it currently stands, whoever owns land or has the leasing rights to that land, is allowed to essentially pump out as much water as they want. As such, Nestlé buys up as many water rights and resources as it can across the country. This allows the company to literally pump out millions upon millions of cubic meters of water every year that is then transportation to huge bottling factories (5). This practice has expanded across the entire US and even into parts of Canada, where the company is claiming water rights in countless communities that also rely on this precious water (6).
The latest in the continuing Nestlé water controversy is the announcement that the billion dollar company will be taking even more water from the already devastated state of Michigan. As you may already know, on January 16, 2016, President Obama declared a Federal State of Emergency in Flint, Michigan where thousands of residents have been exposed to toxic amounts of lead in their drinking water since 2014 (7).
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided $5 million in aid to the city, in which up to 12,000 children, the most vulnerable to lead exposure, were exposed to large amounts of this known neurotoxin (8).
Today, many residents in Flint are still relying on bottled drinking water, which puts Nestlé, the world’s largest supplier of bottle water, in a very unique position to profit in the face of this catastrophe (9, 10).
Nestle Water In Michigan
Despite the current water crisis, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) granted the Swiss water giant preliminary approval to increase their current allowable pumping volume at one of its production wells from 150 gallons-per-minute to 400. The situation is shocking to many, especially since the bottling plant is only 120 miles from Flint, where residents are still in dire need of fresh drinking water.
DEQ data shows that Nestlé pumped more than 3.4 billion gallons of water from its three well fields in Michigan between 2005 and 2015. Now, with the proposed increase, Nestlé can pump up to 576,000 gallons of water per day, which is about 210 million gallons-per-year from just the one well. And because this well is also a cold-water trout stream tributary of the Muskegon River, it has environmentalists very concerned.
While not surprisingly, Nestlé and the DEQ contend that an environmental review shows the aquifer can handle the almost tripled amount of water withdrawal, others are not convinced it won’t affect the flow, water levels and/or temperature of nearby surface waters (11).
Again, not surprisingly, Nestlé’s proposal assures there will be, “. . . an incremental effect of the proposed increased withdrawal on wetland water levels may occur in five wetlands, but is not expected to cause adverse ecological effects. Observations of these wetlands did not find the presence of any threatened or endangered species.” (12)
Adding insult to injury, Nestle can pump this extra water at no extra cost because current Michigan State law allows private property owners to withdraw from any well under their property free of charge. They only need to pay the $200 yearly administration fee. What’s worse is that ordinarily the Great Lakes Compact, a legally binding agreement between the eight Great Lakes states and the US government that allows the states to jointly determine how to manage the waters of the Great Lakes basin, would prevent the sales of the bottled water outside of Michigan, but there is a specific exemption for bottles under 5.7 gallons (13). This leaves Nestlé free to pump, drain and export the water, even during a declared State of Emergency.
So, while the residents of Flint still clamor for fresh drinking water, Nestlé will max out the water withdrawal capacity under Section 17 of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) (14), ultimately draining Michigan’s already tenuous natural water reserves. While the state won’t charge the foodstuff giant anything but a pitiful paperwork fee for the billions of gallons of extra water it will take, Nestle will profit. The company shows no signs of slowing down either.
If Brabeck has his way, Nestlé will continue to expand, gorging on our natural water reserves and continuing to profit with every gallon it takes. After all, according to the CEO, water is not a right.