Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou recently declared a state of emergency in the capital, Montevideo, due to water shortages. (1) Among the measures announced to address the country’s longest recorded drought in 74 years are the construction of a reservoir and tax exemption for bottled water.
Apparently aimed at widening access to bottled water for the less favored strata of the population, the tax exemption proposed as a measure to address the water crisis in Uruguay is the standard neoliberal ‘solution’ to deal with one of the most frequent consequences of global warming, the increase of droughts and floods. It transfers to the private sector—the bottled water industry—the ‘responsibility’ of supplying drinking water to the part of the population that can pay for this service. The poorest, of course, will not be able to pay for this generous measure taken by President Lacalle Pou.
This measure by the government of Uruguay is just another step of neoliberalism in the process of turning global warming and its announced catastrophes into yet another source of profit for large private companies.
Announced Catastrophes and the Water Bottling Industry
In June of this year the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that the El Niño phenomenon, usually associated with rising temperatures, is back and could lead to record high temperatures, according to a statement by NOAA climatologist Michelle L’Heureux. On the other hand, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) also warned this year that the period 2023-2027 could be the warmest on record. We just need to remember what happened last year to get an idea of what is coming.
The intense heat wave that hit Europe in 2022 came along with probably the greatest drought ever recorded in the last 500 years on that continent, as several scientists stated at the time. Great rivers such as the Danube, the Rhine, the Po, and the Volga had their amounts of water so diminished that in some cases navigation became impossible. Fires raged in Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy.
In desperate efforts to save water, public swimming pools were closed in France and Portugal, among others, and the use of hoses for watering private gardens was forbidden in England and other European countries.
But amidst the confusing and intense efforts to decrease water consumption, the water bottling industry remained untouched, even increasing its production to meet the growing demand due to the intense heat. A scandalous example of this contradiction is that in Vittel in France, where the Nestlé company was allowed to continue pumping water from underground aquifers for bottling even when the whole region was suffering from drought and the authorities had already limited the water consumption of various sectors and the inhabitants in general, as denounced by the group Collectif Eau 88.
For the bottled water industry, the heat wave has served to increase its sales. However, the production and transportation of bottled water contributes significantly to both global warming and water scarcity: manufacturing plastic bottles, especially PET bottles, requires the use of large amounts of petroleum-based material as well as a lot of water. It is estimated that about three liters of water are used to produce every one liter of bottled water. The transport of these bottles from the production plants to the supermarkets is mainly done by trucks, using more fossil fuel.
Even worse: the bottled water transported over long distances—such as the water bottled by Nestlé in Vittel and exported to Germany or Switzerland—is taken out of the local water cycle, contributing to water shortages in the region.
Most of the water used for bottling comes from underground aquifers that take many years to recharge naturally. If the amount of water tapped from these aquifers is greater than the natural recharge, the aquifers are at serious risk of exhaustion, as is the case with the aquifer that supplies the city of Vittel, as verified by the competent French authorities. Some aquifers are composed of fossil water, that is, water that has accumulated underground, sometimes thousands of years ago. In these cases, there is no recharge and these aquifers can be exploited until they dry up completely.
The Powerful Lobby of the Bottled Water Industry
The fact that in the midst of such a serious crisis as the drought of 2022 in Europe the bottling companies could have continued to exploit the groundwater when many other sectors of society had to reduce their water consumption, is due in part to the enormous economic power of these companies. Nestlé, Danone, Coca-Cola and Pepsi are the main water bottlers worldwide. Smaller, local companies in most cases can only survive in the market through distribution agreements with one of these large companies.
On the initiative of Nestlé and with the support of the Swiss government, the large water bottlers created the Water Resource Group (www.2030wrg.org) in 2011, which is now also supported by the governments of several countries. The WRG’s goal is to privatize water wherever possible on the planet and to defend the production and consumption of bottled water. It is important to remember that the annual profits of companies like Nestle or Coca-Cola are higher than the budgets of many countries in the world. To the economic power is added the political power of countries that, through their foreign policy, support the privatization of water in the countries of the South, often under the guise of ‘development aid’ as is the case of Switzerland, which incidentally does not hide this choice: since 2018 the Deputy Director of the Agency for Development Cooperation, SDC—Swiss Development and Cooperation—is the former Director of Global Affairs of Nestlé, Christian Frutiger. Thus, few countries can resist the pressure to privatize their water by granting groundwater concessions to private companies for long periods of time, 20 years or more.
The struggle of the Collectif Eau 88 group against the exploitation and bottling of groundwater in the Vittel region by Nestlé is again an emblematic case. The citizens of this movement engaged in the defense of their waters and the environment, despite all the evidence and proof of damage already caused to the aquifer, as well as the pollution by plastic waste in the environment, face almost insurmountable difficulties, mainly due to the connivance of the public authorities with the company. Similar cases of conflicts between citizen movements and the Nestlé company exist in the USA and Canada. France, the USA, and Canada are developed nations with well-established democracies and solid institutions. Even so, citizen groups in these countries have enormous difficulties in their struggle to preserve their waters and their environment. What can we say then when such conflicts between companies and citizen groups occur in less developed countries with much weaker democratic institutions and much less access to legal means of defense or to the press?
In many countries of the South, the WRG plays an important role in the privatization of public water companies, devaluing the ability of these companies to provide quality drinking water to their citizens and above all by accustoming the local middle class to consume bottled water. The poorer classes, who cannot afford to buy bottled water, are left with virtually no access to quality water.
And in southern countries the pollution caused by plastic bottles is another serious problem. Even in France, Germany or Switzerland, it is impossible to recycle all plastic bottles, many of which end up in the environment, in rivers or in the sea. In most southern countries the recycling of these plastic bottles is minimal. But the pollution caused by the bottled water industry is what economists call an ‘externality’, i.e., the environmental costs are passed on to society as a whole, the companies only get the profits.
Public Water Utilities and Climate Change
Public water utilities play a key role in mitigating the effects of global warming to ensure access to clean, good quality water even in the face of challenges such as droughts or floods. In virtually all of Western Europe you can drink water from the tap. Contamination of water from a public supply system is possible, but in general these cases are rare and the sanitary controls are much stricter and more frequent than those carried out by the water bottling industry. That many people have more confidence in the quality of bottled water than in the water provided by public companies is a sign of the success of the propaganda campaign that has been carried out for years by the bottling industry to devalue the quality of public systems. NO bottling company has the same technical competence and sanitation expertise as a large public water utility. And there are always democratic means of demanding—and providing—even more quality by the public companies that are supposed to serve the citizens. Both the water bottling industry and the private water distribution and sanitation companies have profit as their main objective. It was not by chance that in England, a country where a large part of water distribution and sanitation is private, a legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s times, in the face of the heat wave and the drought of 2022, they began to talk about nationalizing these private companies, recognizing their inability to manage the crisis.
France, like Germany, Switzerland and like other Western European countries, has excellent public water companies and bottled water in these countries is indeed a luxury. But a socially and environmentally increasingly expensive luxury. The reality of global warming requires profound changes. The possibility of increasingly frequent droughts means that groundwater must be considered as a reserve for future generations, if not for our own future. These reserves cannot be exhausted to serve the profit and greed of a few private companies. It is time for the civil society of Western European countries to demand from their governments a definitive ban on the production and commercialization of bottled water as a first concrete gesture—and within reach—to decrease the contribution of consumption in these countries to global warming. After all, if these countries, which can and already do offer excellent quality water to their citizens, where bottled water is a luxury, cannot take this small step, how then can the commitments of the governments of these countries to the problems of global warming be taken seriously?
France has an important symbolic responsibility here, because it was in France, more precisely in Vittel, that the bottling of water in plastic bottles began. Before, bottles were made of glass, which limited the expansion of the water bottling industry. It was plastic bottling that allowed the water bottling industry to expand worldwide. In Vittel began the pollution by plastic bottles that would spread all over the planet. The Collectif Eau 88 fight in Vittel thus takes on a planetary importance. It would be an important gesture to initiate in France the end of bottled water production, and that from Vittel a new momentum would start, this time against pollution and for water as a public good and a human right.
Switzerland also has an important responsibility, since it is the headquarters of the multinational company Nestlé, the largest water bottler in the world.
By announcing tax exemption on bottled water in the middle of the water crisis in Uruguay, President Lacalle Pou reveals himself as the great friend of companies like Coca-Cola, Danone and Nestle. But let there be no doubt, this measure of his will be hailed by the governments of several countries as an example of ‘responsibility’ and ‘sustainable solution’! The WRG will certainly encourage other countries to follow Uruguay’s example!
It is time for Brazil and Latin America to show that another way is possible, the way already pointed out by their public water companies. It is also time to demand that Europe, in the face of the planetary reality of global warming, support by all possible means the public water companies in the countries of the South. The water bottling industry has already caused enough damage in both the North and the South of the planet. Neoliberalism and its privatizations bring no solution to the serious problems posed by global warming, but only take advantage of it to increase their profits and their power over society’s decisions. Public companies and public and transparent water management are the way forward.
Franklin Frederick is a Brazilian writer and political activist