The human rights and wrongs of Nestlé and water for all

Nearly 800 million people around the world are still forced to drink contaminated water and each day hundreds of children die.

Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National
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Having safe water to drink should be regarded as an inalienable human right, say campaigners, and last week the United Nations General Assembly put its weight behind them, approving a draft resolution calling on member states to make universal access a ­reality.

Nearly 800 million people around the world are still forced to drink contaminated water and each day hundreds of children die from diarrheal diseases as a result.

The UN says that governments should address this crisis by working towards “the progressive realisation of the human right to safe drinking water and eliminating inequalities in access”.

The achievement of this life-saving objective, however, will likely be undermined by the privatisation of water rights and commoditisation – subjecting the most precious substance on the planet to the vagaries of the market.

At the World Water Forum in the Netherlands in 2000, Nestlé and other corporations with a financial interest in controlling the world’s drinking water succeeded in having access to it officially downgraded from a “right” to a mere “need”.

The Nestlé chairman and former CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe said that “access to water should not be a public right”. His company and others have since been taking control of aquifers that local communities rely on for drinking water – and bottling it for a profit.

Campaigners say that one of the worst examples of this can be found in the small Pakistani village of Bhati Dilwan. The group Sum of Us has launched an online petition aimed at stopping Nestlé, a Swiss conglomerate that owns nearly 80 bottled water brands around the world, including Perrier, San Pellegrino and Vittel, from draining the community’s supply and selling it as Pure Life water, which the company bottles at a nearby plant.

Sum of Us said in a statement: “Villagers have watched their water table sink hundreds of feet since Nestlé moved in. Children are getting sick from the foul-smelling sludge they are forced to choke down.

“Nestlé’s aggressive policies are depriving thousands of people around the planet of the basic water they need to survive.

“If we ignore what’s happening [in Bhati Dilwan], Nestlé and other major corporations will suck up more and more of the world’s water – and that’s not good news for anyone.”

Nestlé vehemently denies the group’s allegations, insisting that the operation is carefully monitored and has “no discernible impact on groundwater levels”. It also told The Review that Brabeck-Letmathe’s comment was “taken out of context” and that he unreservedly believes that access to clean water is a basic human right and supports the UN resolution.

The company told The Review: “We are working with public bodies, communities, leading experts and governments to help ensure effective water management and stewardship.”

This is not, however, the first time the company has come under fire over its business practices. The conglomerate is already the target of a boycott coordinated by the International Nestlé Boycott Committee. The body, which has the support of NGOs including Save the Children, World Vision and Oxfam, says the company’s approach to marketing its infant formula in the developing world is aggressive and unethical.

Campaigners say that the use of the powdered breast milk substitute is linked to health problems and increased infant mortality rates, particularly among the poor.

It has also been alleged that the company has purchased cocoa beans from West African plantations that use child slaves.