Today is World Water Day, an annual observance established
by the United Nations to draw attention to the world’s growing water crisis.
Currently 1.2 billion citizens of the planet lack access to safe water for
drinking, cooking and bathing. By 2025, the United Nations estimates this
number could swell to more than five billion unless we change the rules by
which water is distributed.
The unquenched thirst of corporations for water is one of
the reasons for the water crisis. Agriculture, much of it fueled by
profit-driven, industrialized food systems around the world, uses about 70% of
the world’s available water. Industry uses another 20%, leaving just 10% for
people and their communities. As corporations have claimed a growing share of
water in recent decades, the water remaining available to people has rapidly
And yet this World Water Day, a growing number of
corporations, including Coke, Nestlé and Starbucks ask us to believe that they
offer the solution to the world’s water woes, in a public relations effort that
seeks to draw attention away from corporation’s role in helping to create the
Coke, Nestlé and Starbucks are each part of the new
water-industrial-complex, buying water cheaply, then bottling it and selling it
as a high profit-margin consumer product. Bottled water is the fastest growing
– and one of the most profitable – segments of the beverage market.
Coke has undertaken a public relations campaign that boasts
of the $35 million it will spend this year on water development projects around
the world. That sounds like a lot of money, until you consider that Coke spends
more than $1.7 billion a year on advertising.
Coke’s $35 million on water development translates into 2.9
cents this year for each of the 1.2 billion people who lack water. By contrast,
Coke spent 26.8 cents last year on advertising for every man, woman and child
on earth. Coke paid its CEO Neville Isdell $32.3 million in compensation last
year, almost as much as it will spend to solve the world’s water problems this
Nestlé has responded to critics of its water practices with
the argument that the corporation doesn’t really use that much. In reality,
Nestlé is the world’s leading bottler of water, using 1.86 liters of water for
each 1 liter bottle it sells. This extra .86 liters of wastage, multiplied by
the 22 billion liters of water that Nestlé bottles annually, would provide
enough water to meet the annual needs of more than one million desperately
thirsty people around the world.
Starbucks has undertaken an aggressive advertising campaign
promoting the $10 million it expects to donate to water development projects
over five years. This will be funded by a nickel for each $1.80 bottle of Ethos
water it sells at its stores. But when we do the math, it turns out that
Starbucks’ seemingly generous gift amounts to 58 cents per day for each of
Starbuck’s 9,446 U.S. stores.
Corporate philanthropy does help a few people gain access to
water, but it also creates the false sense that corporation’s are solving the
world’s water problems. This is far from the truth. The water acquisition
practices of bottled water corporations like Coke and Nestlé, and an
unslakeable thirst for profits by firms like Starbucks, not only don’t solve
the world’s water crisis, they make it worse.
Village residents in India have repeatedly said “no” when
Coke has drilled wells for bottling plants. Likewise, citizens of Michigan,
California, Florida, Pennsylvania and Maine have said “no” to Nestlé’s plans to
capture their community’s water in bottles and send it hundreds of miles away
to be sold at a profit. When water privatizing corporations don’t listen and
instead put corporate profits ahead of human health, long-term water security
for people and their communities is jeopardized.
With water, as with most things, there’s a yawning
difference between charity and justice. This World Water Day, let’s not buy the
corporate hype and instead stick to the truth that has guided humanity for
millennia: Water is a gift to be shared by all, not a commodity to be packaged,
traded and sold, with profits streaming to the bottom line.
Klinger(firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Research Director for Corporate
Accountability International—formerly Infact—a nonpartisan membership
organization that protects people by waging and winning campaigns challenging
irresponsible and dangerous corporate actions around the world. For more
information visit www.stopcorporateabuse.org.