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There are many variables that factor into water access, including geography, socio-economics, climate change. The fact that water is necessary to sustain human life, however, is undeniable. In 1977 the United Nations Water Conference declared water to be a human right, stating “All peoples, whatever their stage of development and social and economic conditions, have the right to have access to drinking water in quantities and of a quality equal to their basic need.” The UN has reaffirmed this principle many times in the subsequent decades, and in 2009, concluded, “States have an obligation to address and eliminate discrimination with regard to access to sanitation.” 

Photo credit: Detroit Water Brigade
Photo credit: Detroit Water Brigade

Despite these resolutions, many people worldwide remain without clean drinking water. Every year, roughly 1.5 million children under the age of five contract illnesses from contaminated drinking water and die. The UN estimates that 1.2 billion people live in geographically water scarce regions, and another 1.6 billion are affected by economic water shortages, meaning their countries “lack the necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers.” This means that for nearly half the world’s population, free access to clean drinking water is a luxury they simply cannot afford. The bottling of water from aquifers in one region to be sold at profit in another region only exacerbates this problem.

The most immediate consequence of this practice is the drop it causes in the aquifer. This means that the wells drilled by local residents are no longer deep enough to reach clean drinking water, leading to contaminated water flowing into the drinking water supply, causing disease. In coastal areas, this can also cause saltwater intrusion, making the water completely undrinkable. Saltwater seeping into wells also has drastic environmental effects, killing agriculture and natural vegetation, as well as fish and other aquatic life. Even without saltwater intrusion, just depleting the aquifer changes the flow of sediment in local streams, disrupting food sources for fish and impacting entire ecosystems. Another huge problem is the infrastructure needed to transport water out of rural areas, leading to issues similar to those seen with fossil fuel extraction and logging. This, combined with the obvious environmental concerns surrounding plastic bottle production, makes water bottling an environmental nightmare.

The most pressing concern for water rights activists is negative health effects caused by the lack of clean drinking water. According to recent reports, Nestle is found to be a primary offender of violating human rights. In places like Pakistan, where clean drinking water is already hard to come by, Nestle is tapping the aquifers, bottling the water and selling it back to the wealthiest residents, while poor villages see their wells run dry because of this practice. Maude Barlow, a former UN chief advisor for water issues, states, “When a company like Nestle comes along and says, ‘Pure Life is the answer, we’re selling you your own ground water while nothing comes out of your faucets anymore or if it does it’s undrinkable’—that’s more than irresponsible, that’s practically a criminal act.”

Water privatization is not just a problem in places like Pakistan, however. It’s happening right here in the U.S. In Fryeburg, ME, Nestle has sought, through their subsidiary, Poland Spring, to extract ground water to be bottled and sold internationally. The local residents there have protested the contract between Poland Spring and Fryeburg Water Company, fighting to stop Nestle from extracting their groundwater at an unsustainable rate. 

In Michigan, Nestle is causing more problems. Three Native American tribes filed a lawsuit in 2002 against Perrier’s subsidiary, Great Spring Waters of America and Michigan Governor John Engler. (Because Nestle bought Perrier in 1992, this makes Great Springs part of their portfolio). The Michigan natives claimed that Perrier was violating the 1986 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) by extracting water from the Great Lakes Basin to be bottled and resold. The plaintiffs claimed that the practice of pumping out 575,000 gallons per day would lower the water table for the entire Great Lakes region. They went on to predict that this would diminish local rivers and streams, affect navigation on rivers and lakes, and harm the commercial fishing industry. Nestle and the state argued that bottled water is classified as a food product, and therefor exempt from the WRDA. The judge ultimately threw the case out before it saw conclusion, saying the plaintiffs did not have the right to sue under the WRDA. The state of Michigan still has no limits to the amount of water that may be extracted. 

Currently in Detroit, MI, residents are facing a water shortage of a different kind. Since May, the Detroit Water Authority has sought to stop service to 3,000 households per week, for being $150 or more delinquent on their bills. In a city where 40 percent of residents are living at or below the poverty level, this translates to the most vulnerable segment of the population being denied a basic necessity.

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