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Water Should be Free For Everyone, Not Bottled For a Few

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Maude Barlow and Rosemarie Bär

I have just returned from a week in Switzerland to promote the right to water and to challenge the Swiss bottled water giant, Nestlé. My visit was arranged by Franklin Frederick, an activist and leader in the global fight against Nestlé Waters, who is originally from Brazil, but now lives and works in Switzerland. Franklin is an extraordinary man. He is fiercely committed to global water justice and has been a thorn in the side of the water privateers for years.

I also reconnected with Rosmarie Bar, a former Green Member of the Swiss Parliament and former senior member of the Swiss development network, Alliance Sud. Rosmarie and I worked together to form an international group called Friends of the Right to Water and worked for many years to lay the groundwork for the recognition of this right at the UN.

I spoke at the universities of Bern and Lucerne and in a beautiful 500-year-old church located in the heart of Bern. In the magnificent wood paneled Swiss Parliament, I also met with a delegation of MPs from every party who are committed to protecting public water and the human right to water. In all these venues, I met wonderful, committed people working for economic and social justice.

However, it is very clear that Nestlé is a powerful presence in Switzerland and its influence in the halls of power goes deep. Everyone I talked to said so in one way or another. Switzerland has no law limiting political donations from corporations, or requiring transparency in campaign financing. Given that the marketing department of Nestlé has a larger annual budget than the World Health Organization, it is widely understood that the company has great political influence.

Maude Barlow and Franklin Frederick at the Church of the Holy Spirit

Of special concern is the partnership that the Swiss Federal Agency for Development and Cooperation has entered into with the company. Nestlé is a charter member of the newly formed Swiss Water Partnership, along with civil society groups and aid agencies, that will advise the Swiss government on water policy in the Global South. The stated desire is to come to a set of “shared values” so that governments, NGOs and the private sector are promoting common policies and world views when giving aid money for water development, or what the SDC calls “speaking with one voice.” But what is this voice?

Nestlé was one of the first companies to commodify water. In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, seeing what it did to the groundwater supplies of the surrounding regions, the company bought up huge quantities of mineral water deposits in Switzerland. Nestlé is the biggest bottled water company in the world and is scouring countries all over the planet for new supplies of water.

Nestlé has consistently promoted public-private partnerships whereby private water companies run water services on a for-profit basis. Company head Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, referred to often in the Swiss media as the “Water Man,” repeatedly promotes the full commodification of water (although after much criticism, now admits that the poor need some water too). He has proposed setting aside 1.5 per cent of the planet’s water for human rights, the rest going into the market. Nestlé also promotes GMO crops, which are voracious users of pesticides.

So these policies are the ones that the company will promote to the Swiss government in its development work. It is a travesty that this is the water face to the world of Switzerland. The country has one of the finest public water systems anywhere. SDC defends this partnership and publicly states that a key goal is to promote the interests of Swiss water companies abroad.

But what does Nestlé know about delivering water and sanitation services? Nothing! It is involved with this partnership to gain credibility and to have the Swiss government open doors to new private water markets in the developing world. It is the same reason the company is deeply involved with the funding arm of the World Bank. In fact, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe chairs a new advisory board called the 2030 Water Resources Group that helps set policy models and priorities for water and sanitation programs around the world.

This is a disaster in a world where demand for water is outstripping supply at an accelerating rate. As Wenonah Hauter from Food and Water Watch says, Nestlé’s goal is to shift government policy away from providing public municipal water supplies to people, and toward a dependency on bottled water to provide basic drinking water. And of course, it is about capitalizing on the global water crisis.

It is time to call out Nestlé and the governments that partner with them. I will return to Nestlé’s home base again soon where we will shout out against this malevolent water hunter.

Photo 1: Maude Barlow and Rosemarie Bär; Photo 2: Maude Barlow and Franklin Frederick at the Church of the Holy Spirit