Opinion Piece: Is Water a Human Right or a Commodity?

Drought is once again making news as California experiences increasingly harsh water restrictions. Outrage has erupted over Nestlé’s continued exploitation of precious water reserves, despite some permits having expired. An online Courage Campaign petition has been launched to promote international attention and condemnation of Nestlé. Some activists have resorted to blocking Nestlé’s Sacramento plant with plastic pitchforks.[1]

In 2000, Nestlé successfully lobbied the World Water forum to have water downgraded from a human right to a need. Nestlé owns five water bottling plants in California[2] with allocations of over 700 million gallons of water. Tim Brown, CEO of Nestlé Waters, North America has defended the company’s operations. In an interview on Southern California radio KPCC, Mr Brown argued that ‘people need to drink water’, and claimed Nestlé was only responding to consumer demand.[3] He went on to say that if he could, he would increase production, despite admitting that the bottling process wastes around 30 % of the water annually.[4]

American TV journalist Abby Martin, criticised Nestlé on its actions in California, citing the company’s dismal corporate record. According to Martin’s research, Nestlé paid $3.71 for every million litres of water during the 2013 drought in Canada. This was sold back to the consumer as bottled water, for $2 million dollars, in what Martin described as, ‘an insane’ profit margin. [5] Nestlé claims profits from water bottling operations are less than 10%, however, despite these meagre profit margins, Nestlé has expanded its water operations across the world. The interview, including Nestlé’s videoed response, and Martin’s counter responses, were posted on YouTube in June 2013.[6]

While the focus in California is on water wastage and Nestlé’s bullying tactics, two underlying ethical issues include bottled water, particularly in regions where water is already treated and of drinking quality, and the dependency relationships which Nestlé establishes with its customers.

Before single-use plastic bottles, people stored water in various containers, including rainwater tanks, jerry cans and large water tankers to ship bulk quantities of water. Consumers have been conditioned by slick advertising campaigns, creating a dependency relationship (remember the baby formula scandal in Africa?). California has 110 water-bottling plants and bottled water is a now a staple on supermarket shelves.

According to Phillip Mattera’s (2013) Rap Sheet[8], Nestlé faced legal actions in 2003, over incorrect labelling of its water, marketing it as spring water when in fact it was tap water.

Nestlé’s poor corporate record and moral bankruptcy spans decades. In a re-published article by Kevin Samson for Global Research in March 2015, Samson condemned Nestlé’s position on water privatisation, citing the video interview of 2011 in which Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe claimed that water was not a human right, organic food could be harmful, and critics of GM foods were extremists.[7]

But, perhaps the most damning evidence of all is Nestlé’s 1970s global campaign and the marketing tactics of their baby formula in Africa. Nestlé lobbied various governments to promote formula feeding over breastfeeding and used sales reps dressed in nurses’ uniforms to promote their baby formula. As many poor families discovered, baby formula consumed a large proportion of the household income. Thousands of mothers who had ceased lactating, resorted to watering down their baby formula. Often the water was contaminated. This caused a humanitarian crisis resulting in the starvation and the death of many babies, and which led to worldwide boycotts of Nestlé products.

Nestlé’s website now declares its respect for human rights. Nestlé does concede that underprivileged people who can’t afford to pay for water should be allowed a free daily allowance.[9] However, given Brabeck-Letmathe’s comments and the company’s attitude to California’s dwindling water reserves, it’s hard to believe any of Nestlé’s motives are altruistic.

California is just one example where a rethink of water usage by governments, residents, manufacturers, and agriculture is needed. Long term solutions such as desalination plants to purify seawater are being investigated. Co-operation of all stakeholders is vital. Starbucks recently acquiesced to public demand, moving their water-bottling operation in California to Pennsylvania. Californian farmers, also under pressure over their large water allocations, voluntarily agreed to cut water usage for crop production by 25 %.

The longest recorded drought was 95 years ago, in the 1920s. In a study of drought history, scientists now believe that California has experienced droughts extending for 50 years, with some megadroughts lasting for hundreds of years.[10]  In a world increasingly affected by climate change, matching appropriate manufacturing processes to the available resources and locations is smarter, and more sustainable. California is a semi-arid area subject to severe droughts and as such will need to make better decisions on how it uses its water.

Nestlé’s actions should be of concern to everyone. They are one of the biggest food companies in the world, with a clear business philosophy and agenda. As the world’s population increases and climate change impacts further, Nestlé needs to address the growing global water crisis, but they also need you dependant, and paying.

© Janet Bayliss 2015

[1]The original content was published by the Guardian’s teleSUR on 15 May 2015 and is available at the following address: <http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Nestle-CEO-Would-Increase-Water-Extraction-Despite-Drought–20150515-0026.html>

[2] CNN’s Money reporter, Katie Lobosco, claims there are 110 water bottling plants in California.

[3] teleSUR article 15 May 2015.

[4] ibid

[5] Abby Martin responds to Nestlé’s video ‘letter’ 25 June 2013.

[6] ibid

[7] Samson is referring to the 2013 YouTube video of the interview with Nestlé’s Chairman, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe. There are various versions available. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4C29_U0Ksao

[8] The Rap Sheet is part of The Corporate Research Project, a not for profit centre which assists individuals, communities and groups to research and analyse companies and industries.

[9] Published in an article by Peter Brabeck-Lemathe in 2012 and available on Nestle’s website.

[10] Research produced several articles on this. The NY Times article provides in depth scientific arguments for the existence of megadroughts.


Breaking The Set, 2013, ‘Nestle Responds to Abby/Corporate Troll Spotting’, viewed 7 August 2015, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cxf9UtltFuY>

Fountain, H, 2015, ‘In California a Wet Era May be Ending’, NY Times, 13 April, viewed, 8 August 2015, <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/14/science/californias-history-of-drought-repeats.html?_r=0>

Lobosco K, 2015, ‘Drought Turns Californians Against Water Bottling Companies’, CNN Money 26 May, viewed 8 August 2015, <http://money.cnn.com/2015/05/26/news/companies/california-bottled-water-drought/>

Lockie A, 2015, ‘Nestlé Waters’ CEO will “absolutely not” stop bottling water in California –“In fact, if I could, I’d increase it”’ Business Insider Australia 15 May, viewed 7 August 2015, <http://www.businessinsider.com.au/nestle-waters-ceo-will-absolutely-not-stop-bottling-water-in-california-in-fact-if-i-could-id-increase-it-2015-5>

Mattera P, 2015, ‘Nestle: Corporate Rap Sheet’, Corporate Research Project, 2009, last update 2013, viewed, 6 August 2015, <http://www.corp-research.org/nestle >

Brabeck-Lemathe P, 2012, Water is a Human Right but not a Free Good, Nestle: Good Food, Good Life, 4 October, viewed 16 August 2015, <https://www.water-challenge.com/posts/Water-is-a-human-right-%E2%80%93-but-not-a-free-good>

TeleSUR 2015, ‘Nestle CEO would “Increase” Water Extraction Despite Drought’, the Guardian, 15 May, viewed 7 August 2015, <http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Nestle-CEO-Would-Increase-Water-Extraction-Despite-Drought–20150515-0026.html>