The Cruelty of the Bottled Water Industry
Imagine you’re in a hot desert — the sun is beating down on you, the horizon a simmering haze, your clothes caked in dried sweat, and holy shit are you thirsty. But off in the distance, a glimmer? Could it be?
Water! You’re so happy you could cry, but as you lumber and hobble closer, you notice something else. Between you and that cool, babbling spring stands a locked gate with a sign reading “KEEP OUT.”
Now imagine this desert is your home and you get a taste of life in El Alto, Bolivia, where a billion-dollar French multinational corporation called Suez privatized the local water supply to sell it back at a premium.
Like most exploitation, Suez supported the operation with the rhetoric of “helping underprivileged communities.” But the riots that took place in 2000 tell a different story; one where the poor and underprivileged die of thirst as their water table vanishes.
Water is becoming just another commodity, and the rich are hoarding every drop they can.
The Age of the Water Baron
In 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris said, “For years there were wars fought over oil; in a short time there will be wars fought over water.” While it’s wild to hear a decades-old tinfoil hat theory manifesting in real time, it’s not as wild as our military starving other countries of water.
“We must address inequities in access to clean water, at local state federal levels,” she goes on to say. “Understanding opportunities to build back up infrastructure around water.”
Like all political statements, it’s what Harris doesn't say that matters.
Did she mean inequities like California’s 1997 measure to hide the identities of the state’s biggest water hogs? Or how “the Rancho Santa Fe area water district [i.e. rich people] only has 2.3% of the population of San Francisco, [but] its customers use the equivalent of 22% of the water”?
Maybe she meant Detroit, MI where the city’s water board cut off over 20,000 people from the municipal water supply to drive profits. When customers sued Detroit Water and Sewage Department, their case was dismissed by every court it faced. That infrastructure?
No. She meant giving corporations access to natural resources by cutting off access for residents who actually need them.
Common sense says this can’t be legal, but it is. Companies like Suez, Nestlé and Coca-Cola know exactly how to blur the line between what's legal and what's right so that if they ever face criminal charges (for, say, using child labor), the blame goes to the government.
No matter how bad our actions may be, they say, the government permitted them. So how do these companies get laws passed that don’t even serve the interests of voters?
Playing the Long Game
Have you ever planned something 4 years into the future? 10 years? 50 years? Most of us can’t even imagine timelines that long, but for multinationals, they’re a mainstay.
Here’s a familiar example — you need college textbooks but your bookstore charges too much. Thankfully they're sold used online, so you skip the middleman and buy direct from other students. You resell the books once school's out for a small, one-time commission fee.
Actual bookstores — especially small ones — can’t keep up with this model and shut down. No worries. Who needs bookstores when you can do it yourself? And that's when your online hub begins charging large monthly fees instead of one-time commissions. Selling a couple books now costs more than you earn.
By then, the only bookstores left are major retailers. Local shops have disappeared. In fact, lots of big name stores are out of business; Toys-R-Us, Circuit City, Macy’s and many grocery stores have called it a day in a surrender to e-commerce.
No local bookstores, no way to sell them yourself, and you have to buy everything online. If you hadn’t guessed already, this is the story of Amazon — a classic case of undercutting the market and writing more favorable terms once the competition vanishes.
Water privatization is bad — like, overtly bad — but water companies know better than to force their way in against our will. The better way is to to cripple local utilities using the legal system, then present a “better” alternative when the time is right.
Remember in 2020 when Donald Trump and Louis DeJoy cut funding for the U.S. Postal Service? By kneecapping the USPS, they hoped to privatize mail or at least alter it to where people couldn’t vote that way — thankfully, it didn’t work.
Water is no different. Companies like Suez, Biwater, Coca-Cola and others have bank accounts set aside for lobbying governments and weakening municipal water companies' ability to do their job. Once the public is sufficiently pissed, in come ads offering a unicorn of a solution: “let the rich handle it.”
“If the value of water is zero, an investment will never yield. If the water has at least a decent price, an investment might yield...”
That statement comes from Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, who argues that free water is wasted water. Instead, it should have a price so investors can make money trading it.
History reminds us over and over that capitalism and human rights don’t mix. Healthcare, higher education and public utilities are examples of how people suffer when investors try to mine profit from the general public — a group largely comprising the poor and middle class.
But here’s the thing: the United Nations and the World Bank share the same ideology (echoing Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher) — privatization solves any problem. Hand the reins over to capitalists and they’ll find an efficient, cost-effective way to… something. Who cares? They’ll take care of it.
To misquote Ronald Reagan, “privatization is not the solution to our problem; privatization is the problem.” This speech by Jeffrey Sachs addresses the problem in one of the best ways you'll hear this year.
How We Got Here
As The Story of Stuff puts it, “Bottled water is a textbook example of manufactured demand.” Bottling companies use ad campaigns to undercut the safety of municipal water sources, then lobby for taxpayer funding as an “essential public good” — they create a problem so we'll pay them to solve it.
Sales of bottled water in 2018 peaked over $22 billion, and the industry is expected to keep growing. Keep in mind, bottled water wasn’t invented until the 1970s. Both Aquafina and Dasani sell bottled tap water and use 3x as much water as they sell in the process. Their products add little value, if any, to the market. Companies like Coca-Cola and Nestlé are little more than bottling companies with great PR.
Bottled water causes problems such as:
- BPA poisoning
- Microplastic pollution
- Extreme amounts of waste
- Groundwater depletion
- Price gouging
Bottling companies seize vital resources, ship them out of the local water table, then pay politicians for military protection once people get angry. And they know how to cover their tracks.
Why Doesn’t This Make the News?
Water theft is violence, and water barons are the thieves. How inalienable is the right to life if private companies can refuse water to people who can't pay? If a negligent parent keeps water from their child and the child dies, it's a crime. How does depriving entire communities of water get a pass?
Violence on this scale should cause national outrage, and yet these stories rarely appear in mainstream media. When they do, the issue is shrouded in jargon so thick that it’s hard to make out any meaning at all. Beautiful, smiling faces reassure us that protests are, “nothing more than a shameless effort to generate publicity” (that was Coca-Cola’s response to a lawsuit alleging they hired paramilitary hitmen to savagely torture and kill dissenting union members).
Each year, these companies spend huge sums making sure bad news stays hidden while good news is broadcast loud and clear. Whatever happens, keep the shareholders happy.
But the fences around their springs won’t last forever, and people are getting angry. We’re pretty damn thirsty. Things are due for change.