Nestlé Is Sucking the World’s Aquifers Dry

Nestle takes about 25 million gallons of water a year from the San Bernardino National Forest under a permit that expired decades ago. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun via AP)

At Bloomberg Businesweek, Caroline Winter visits Nestlé’s bottling plant in Mecosta County, Michigan to analyze how the multinational corporations targets small communities with promises of jobs, and buys up public land to gain control of water resources. Nestle sold $7.7 billion dollars worth of bottled water last year, making it the world’s largest bottled water company. It made that money partly by paying a pittance for its product. Nestlé pays the U.S. Forest Service only $524 a year to draw 30 million gallons of public water in San Bernardino, California, and Nestlé pays the city of Evart, Michigan just $250,000 a year for its water. Consumers drink bottled water because they assume it’s safer than tap, but that makes us complicit in what many analysts and activists warn is the gradual privatization of water. These multinational corporations don’t have the public’s best interests in mind, activists warn. If anybody should own water, it’s the public.

Nestlé has been preparing for shortages for decades. The company’s former chief executive officer, 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.” His successor, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, who retired recently after 21 years in charge, drew criticism for encouraging the commodification of water in a 2005 documentary, saying: “One perspective held by various NGOs—which I would call extreme—is that water should be declared a human right. … The other view is that water is a grocery product. And just as every other product, it should have a market value.” Public outrage ensued. Brabeck-Letmathe says his comments were taken out of context and that water is a human right. He later proposed that people should have free access to 30 liters per day, paying only for additional use.

Compared with the water needs of agriculture and energy production, the bottled water business is barely responsible for a trickle; in Michigan, it accounts for less than 1 percent of total water usage, according to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). But it rankles many because the natural resource gets hauled out of local watersheds for private profit, not used in the service of feeding people or keeping their lights on. There’s also, of course, the issue of plastic pollution.

In the U.S., Nestlé tends to set up shop in areas with weak water regulations or lobbies to enfeeble laws. States such as Maine and Texas operate under a remarkably lax rule from the 1800s called “absolute capture,” which lets landowners take all the groundwater they want. Michigan, New York, and other states have stricter laws, allowing “reasonable use,” which means property owners can extract water as long as it doesn’t unreasonably affect other wells or the aquifer system. Laws vary even within states. New Hampshire is a reasonable-use state, but in 2006, the municipality of Barnstead became the first nationwide to ban the pumping of its water for sale elsewhere.

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