Nestlé’s ice-cold business with water

According to the UN, 753 million people have no access to clean drinking water. 2.5 billion do not have adequate sanitation. 85 per cent of the world’s population lives in the driest half of the world. Nevertheless, water resellers like Nestlé go to these very places to get their water. Because it is good for them. Nestlé is the world’s largest food company. The Swiss company makes more than seven billion euros in annual sales in the water business. The sales strategy is clever. They sell bottled table water, that is tap water, in plastic bottles. This is pumped directly from the groundwater and is therefore not covered by water protection laws in some countries. For example, in the USA: even during the severe drought in California, the company is still allowed to pump water out of the groundwater as usual, while private households are rationed. Because the existing laws relate only to the protection of rivers, lakes and the sea.

The question arises of how Nestlé could buy water rights in areas that regularly suffer from droughts. In their documentary “Bottled Life”, filmmakers Urs Schnell and Res Gehriger uncover the background to Nestlé’s water trade. They come across amended reports and environmentalists under legal pressure.

In Ontario, Canada, Nestlé pays $3.71 for a million litres of water, which it pumps out and fills into plastic bottles. The company receives two million US dollars for the sale. This translates into an incredible 53,908,255 percent value added. In Canada, agreements had been made to limit the amount of water removed. After some “negotiations” between the Nestlé Group and the Ministry of the Environment, even during this year’s drought, Nestlé was allowed to continue pumping water as usual.

In Doornkloof, South Africa, Nestlé owns another water factory. Here, the Group has been granted exclusive water rights for 20 years. There have been no government controls over their work so far. Group employees say they get two 0.5 litre bottles of the well-known Pure Life water brand a day. And this, where the company always advertises to drink at least two litres of water a day. Some of the employees come from the village next to the factory. There is no running water here. Every day people, including many children, have to travel long distances to get to water. And from these sources it is mostly polluted by the surrounding mines and makes people sick. Nestlé boasts of having provided a water pipe for the village. In reality, this is a single tap from which only a thin trickle flows.

The surrounding villages, which have running water, are also suffering. Because the water is polluted, makes people seriously ill and should not be drunk or even brought into contact with the body. They are dependent on water donations from local associations. And all this happens next to Nestlé’s water factory, where the best Pure Life water is tapped for the richer sections of the population. For the people from the surrounding villages, the bottled water is priceless.

Nestlé wins, the profit is huge. CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe finds it important that water has a market value, like any other food.4 He says that we should start “to understand water as a valuable resource”.5 Nestlé recognised this early and reacted: Nestlé Waters was founded in 1992.6 NGOs, such as Attac, which insist on the right to water, he describes as extreme and violent. One thing is clear: the people who suffer from permanent thirst next to the water factory are well aware that it costs something. They know the market value because they can’t pay for it.

On 28 July 2010, the UN General Assembly recognised the right to access clean water as a human right. Perhaps the Nestlé Group is complying with national and regional laws. But the privatisation of the public good could violate international human rights law. Privatising water and capitalising on it to deprive the poor of the vital liquid is and remains a more than questionable business strategy.