Water Privatization

CELDF has assisted the first communities in the U.S. to prohibit water privatization. Below learn about the harms from privatizing our water, how communities are organizing to stop them, and what you can do in your own community.

Water is life. But today, it’s being purchased and siphoned away by corporations for a profit. By turning ground and surface water into a private commodity, corporations are profiting as they deplete water sources and the wildlife that depend on it, and in some cases, contaminate aquifers and wells.[1] Privatized water is often used for private profit in industrial activities such as agribusiness, gas drilling and manufacturing – or it is bottled and sold back to the public – to whom it belonged in the first place. In other cases, municipal water is being privatized, leaving communities to suffer with mismanagement, higher costs and poor water quality.[2]

Why does it matter?

People, communities, and nature have a right to water. While there is plenty of water, only 2.5% of that is freshwater, and only about one-third of that is available to humans and ecosystems. The rest is locked in ice.[3] Further, the World Bank has predicted that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will struggle for access to water.[4] Regardless, water sources are being purchased by corporations for their own profit, without regard to local or global ramifications.

But corporations aren’t the only actors in this water privatization scheme. State environmental agencies are issuing permits to corporations to extract millions of gallons of water a day from local aquifers to bottle and sell. This is literally drying up our communities, as the majority of bottled water in the U.S. is drawn from drought zones.


Is water the 21st century’s oil?

The CEO of Nestlé, Paul Brabeck, has said, “Access to water should not be a public right,” and that governments should privatize all water supplies.[5] As Nestlé itself owns more than 70% of the world’s bottled water brands[6] and leases or owns 50 spring sites in the U.S.,[7] the company is well on its way to monopolizing the resource most crucial to sustaining life on the planet – a resource that political analysts speculate will spark wars in the coming decades.[8]

Brabeck doesn’t seem concerned about this. Nestlé Waters, which owns Arrowhead, has been transporting water from the San Bernadino National Forest using a permit that expired in 1988.[9] In 2013, the company extracted 27 million gallons of water from springs in the area – at the low cost of one expired permit: $524. That same year, it extracted another 51 million gallons from groundwater in the area.[10] In Colorado, despite opposition from nearly 80% of Chaffee County’s residents, Nestlé will extract 650 million gallons of Arkansas Valley water by 2020.[11]

Sometimes, the water for sale isn’t even kept inside the country. A deal struck between Cadiz Inc. and the Metropolitan Water District of California will allow the corporation to sell up to 30,000 acre-feet of water a year to any potential buyer, through publicly owned pipes.[12] Such massive water exports cause lasting harm to our communities and ecosystems. So much water has been sucked out of the Colorado River and the Rio Grande, that neither river reaches the sea anymore.[12]


Bottling deception

The business of bottling water is a uniquely extractive and deceptive industry. Fact after fact can be lined up to tear a hole in the reasoning behind bottled water, yet it continues. A small network of people are behind the greatest PR ruse since the tobacco industry’s hold on the American public 80 years ago – that their “pure” water trumps tap water and is a worthwhile product.

Evian happens to be “naïve” spelled backwards – such striking coincidences don’t often occur. Even though the company is named after springs in Évian-les-Bains, France, this coincidence perfectly illustrates the trickery behind bottled water. Unfortunately, consumers have bought into the game, as bottled water is America’s fastest growing drink of choice.[13] Americans’ demand for bottled water has more than tripled since 1991 and is more than 21 times the demand from 1976, when Nestlé’s Perrier hit the market.[14] How did we ever survive without bottled water?


Not-so-fun facts

Bottled water companies are thriving – despite piles of damning evidence of the harm they cause. Bottled water uses about 2,000 times more energy to produce than tap water. It costs up to 2,000 times that of tap water[15] – even though 40% of bottles sold in the U.S. are simply filled with filtered tap water.[16] Plastic bottles require nearly 7 times the amount of water they contain just to make the bottle,[16] and 17 million barrels of oil are required to meet America’s annual demand for bottled water. [17] Despite that 1,500 bottles are thrown away every second.[18] Each week, 37,800 tractor trailers drive across the country delivering water.[19] A senior scientist from the Natural Resources Defense Council has said, “There is no reason to believe that bottled water is safer than tap water.”[20]


Irregular regulation

A major selling point of bottled water is that once extracted, it is “purified.” However, this is inaccurate. Nine of the top ten selling brands either don’t disclose information about the source of the water, the contamination testing, or if and how the water is purified – transparency doesn’t seem to go beyond the water itself. [21] As well, because bottled water is treated as a food, it’s regulated by the FDA, whereas tap water is regulated by the stricter EPA.[17] Further, 60–70% of bottled water is not even covered by FDA rules, as brands whose sales are confined to a single state are exempt from the FDA.[17] Federal mandate doesn’t even require bottled water to be safer than tap water.[18]

Most bottled water is extracted from groundwater, which is typically less vulnerable to contamination than surface water.[13] However, groundwater can still contain naturally high amounts of arsenic, nitrates and radioactive elements, or be susceptible to pollution from human activities like mining, fracking, industrial waste, faulty septic systems, and underground gas or chemical tanks.[13] There are more than 84,000 chemicals in the stream of commerce, placing our communities’ health at risk.[22]


Bottling outbreaks

When contaminants are bottled and sold, adverse health effects range from gastrointestinal illness, reproductive problems and neurological disorders, [23] or even death.[24] Especially prone are infants, children, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems due to AIDS, chemotherapy or transplant medications.[23] The Center for Disease Control lists 14 contamination outbreaks of bottled water since 1973, all spreading acute gastrointestinal illness that causes diarrhea and vomiting, along with fever and abdominal cramps.[23] These contaminations were caused by bacteria, chemicals, gasoline byproducts or by unidentified agents, during different stages of the bottling and sales process.[23]


is Your town’s water for sale?

Most people would be correct to assume that their city or town’s water is owned and controlled by the local government. However, 35 million Americans receive their water from privately owned, for-profit utilities – the two biggest of which are American Water and United Water.[25] Because the bottom line for a corporation is to turn profits, providing quality water and service at a fair price takes the back seat, leaving communities to suffer the cost. In Pekin, Illinois, water rates jumped 204% after 18 years of control by Illinois-American, a subsidiary of American Water.[12] Puerto Rico came to learn the drawbacks of private water systems when the contracting company failed to maintain aqueducts and sewers, while charging residents for water that failed to even reach them.[26]


privatization and water don’t mix

Water privatization leads to job losses. In Indianapolis, between 1994 and 1998, nearly 200 workers were laid off after privatization, putting water quality and service at risk from understaffing.[27]

Public health is routinely compromised for higher profits. The National Association of Water Companies lobbies Congress and the EPA to prevent the adoption of higher water quality standards.[12] In Walkerton, Ontario, seven people died and 2,300 others became ill due to an E. coli contamination in the drinking water[24] – even though the private company contracted to test the water knew about the contamination beforehand.[12]


Why is water privatization allowed to continue?

Business has muddied government’s priorities. Corporations in the bottled water business combine corporate “rights” with state permits that allow them to exert ownership over public sources of water.[1] Legislation such as the New Hampshire Groundwater Protection Act, does just this – allowing corporations to effectively drain local aquifers – overriding any local, democratic decision making.[1]

In regard to municipal water systems, corporations often seek to woo municipalities to hand over their water or sewer systems in a long-term contract. Once signed, privatization is difficult to reverse. If a company fails to live up to its end of the deal, proving a breach of contract is a costly and complicated process. Multinational trade agreements such as NAFTA and GATS give corporations powerful legal recourse. A business can use NAFTA’s closed tribunals to challenge the reversal of privatization as a NAFTA-forbidden action of “expropriation.”[12] Under GATS, once a service is privatized, the WTO’s rules give special protection for private investors, making it tough to remunicipalize.[12]

CELDF offers a way to resist

Communities have won victories over harmful water privatization and are pursuing more with the help of CELDF. Nestlé, doing business under the Poland Springs label, had drilled 23 test-wells in 2006 and 2007 in the Vernon Walker Wildlife Management Reserve, a protected area shared by Shapleigh and Newfield, Maine.

Community members contacted CELDF to help them organize and draft Water Rights and Local Self-Government Ordinances. These rights-based laws prohibit corporate water withdrawals, remove the rights of water corporations when they come into conflict with community rights, and assert the right of the community and its residents to local self-governance. Both communities organized special Town Meetings and passed the ordinances with broad support. After this opposition, Nestlé removed all 23 test wells to the resounding celebratory shouts of community members who stood through pouring rain to witness the event. Following Shapleigh and Newfield, as well as Barnstead and Nottingham, New Hampshire, other communities in Maine, New Hampshire, and California are pursuing water rights ordinances as well.

Take action. Water must be preserved for future generations.

If you or your community is threatened by water privatization, contact CELDF and learn how to take action. Or if your community is trying to stop a bottled water company or a corporate take-over of municipal water systems, CELDF can help. You and your community have rights; CELDF is here to help you fight for those rights.

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[7] Correll, DeeDee. “Out West, a new kind of water war.” Los Angeles Times. April 02, 2009.
[8] Shiva, Vandana. Water Wars: Privatization, pollution, and profit. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002.
[11] Kersgaard, Scot. “Aurora may not have right to sell water to Nestle.” The Colorado Independent. June 25, 2010. http://coloradoindependent.com/56249/aurora-may-not-have-the-right-to-sell-water-to-nestle
[20] Burros, Marian. “Fighting the Tide, a Few Restaurants Tilt to Tap Water.” The New York Times [New York City, NY] 30 May 2007: Section F, Page 1.
[21] Leiba, Nneka, Sean Gray, and Jane Houlihan. Rep. Environmental Working Group. Web.
[24] “Walkerton Inquiry.” Broadcast News. The Canadian Press. 8 May 2001.
[25] Schiffler, Manuel. “The United States: Public Water in a Capitalist Country.”Water, Politics and Money. Springer International Publishing, 2015. 121-131. http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-16691-9_12#

[26] Ruiz, Carmelo. “Rights-Puerto Rico: Thirsty for water and justice.” Inter Press Service, 15 Sept. 1999.[27] White River Environmental Partnership. Summaries of Activities. 1995, 1999.