The media’s obsession with the current—and on-going—presidential election process, you may have missed World Water Day on March 22 to advocate for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. One huge company, Nestle, is contributing to the lack of fresh water in the world as it bottles ground water and leaves people already in poverty with the filthy remains. For example, when the company dug a deep well in the small Pakistani community of Bhati Dilwan, the water level sank over 200 feet from its original 100 feet. Children can either drink the dirty water or use bottled water—that their families can’t afford to buy. Every day more children die from drinking dirty water than AIDS, war, traffic accidents and malaria put together.
Not satisfied with plundering foreign countries and other parts of the U.S., Nestle wants Oregon’s water. The Columbia River Gorge, east of Portland (OR), is one of the most beautiful places in the United States. Millions of tourists visit its scenic wonders, including the largest number of waterfalls in the country. Just 200 yards from Mt. Hood National Forest’s northern boundary, Oxbow Springs flows out of the ground into the Herman Creek watershed, known for its exemplary trail system. Herman Creek also provides refuge for threatened steelhead and salmon.
In the past eight years, Oxbow Springs has gained fame as the public water source where Nestle wants to bottle over 100 million gallons of water each year. In exchange for depleting the state’s water and 200 daily semi-truck trips through the small town of Cascade Locks, Nestle has promised “up to” 50 jobs each paying about $10 per hour. They seemed fairly close to success after Ted Kulongoski, governor in 2010, ordered the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to permanently transfer its water right, with no public interest assessment, to the huge corporation for .2 cents per gallon—less than the cost for residents.
In a David versus Goliath battle, some Oregonians decided to fight back. Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs tribal members protested the deal, and Anna Mae Leonard, 57, held a five-day hunger strike in Cascade Locks last August. She said that the state’s deal between the state and the town violates the Treaty of 1855 between the U.S. and the Four Columbia River Tribes giving Senior Water Rights to the tribes. The tribes of the Gorge depend on selling salmon caught in the town of Cascade Locks for their economy.
In the past few months, Hood River County residents have gathered enough signatures for a ballot measure to prohibit commercial bottling operations in the county, and current governor, Kate Brown, asked ODFW and Oregon Water Resources Department to withdraw applications and go back to a direct water exchange requiring a more robust public interest review. She cited the “historic drought Oregon faced this year” as a reason for greater public involvement.
The battle is heating up as the May 17 election nears. The ballot measure proposes blocking the Nestle plant by banning any water bottling operation producing 1,000 gallons or more a day. Nestle plans to package 11 times that much in each hour. Nestle supporters have established a political group called Coalition for a Strong Gorge Economy. While both sides await the election, state water officials are reviewing the applications Nestle needs to access Oxbow’s water. That process could take several more years.
Although some people watching the current rainfall might assume that the drought in Oregon is over, much of the water for the state comes from the snowpack, historically bad last year and the worst for the Mt. Hood snowpack since it began gathering information in 1980. The year 2015 marks the fourth consecutive year of drought for the U.S. West, causing water shortages and huge wildfires—the greatest level of devastation seen only in six other years since 1960.
Even Washington state’s Queets rain forest, which usually receives an annual rainfall of over 200 inches, burned last year. Lack of snowpack from the warm winter (14 percent of usual) combined with an exceedingly hot, dry spring caused the biggest fire since the park was established over 100 years ago by Theodore Roosevelt. The natural fire cycle in this forest is about 500 to 800 years, but three fires have occurred in just the past 50 years, each one progressively worse. The fire that covered four square miles for almost six months wasn’t extinguished until after a heavy rainfall from a series of storms.
Nestle has been sourcing its water from the San Bernardino National Forest without a permit for the past 27 years. Forced to apply for another permit, they can keep plundering California by paying an annual fee of $524. California cannot find out how much water Nestle is taking out of the state because the company does not have to divulge this information.
The eight states with the most severe to exceptional drought conditions directly affecting approximately over 50 million people of the United States are Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and South Carolina. In California, 46 percent of the land area is in a state of exceptional drought conditions. A study by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reported:
“Droughts in the U.S. Southwest and Central Plains during the last half of this century could be drier and longer than drought conditions seen in those regions in the last 1,000 years.”
People in other states are indirectly affected from reduced food supplies. The Great Plains states rely on groundwater while the West needs surface water, hopefully replenished by spring thaw of the snowpack levels. Even western Gulf Coast region states experiencing severe flooding during the wet season of May, June, and July such as Texas had no rain since, putting them quickly back into drought.
The effects of climate change caused the worst drought on record in Syria between 2006 and 2011, creating instability for farmers and threatening the country’s food supply. Syria’s lack of water started from poor management 40 years ago and resulted in the current problem of refugees. This paper shows the link between climate change and the rise of ISIS.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense–funded Strauss Center project on Climate Change and African Political Stability, increasing events of floods and drought have turned agricultural land into desert, and heat waves are killing crops and farm animals. The forced migration to cities will stress already unstable governments and create the same sort of chaos as exists in Syria. The global emphasis, including within the United States, on corporate agriculture practices such as Monsanto and Syngenta relies on vast amounts of energy, water and fossil fuel based synthetic pesticides. This model of agriculture uses 80 percent of the world’s arable land and 70 percent of the world’s water while contributing more to climate change than organic farming does.
Nestle’s solution to global water issues is privatization of water sources. The jobs that they create lure people into giving them water-well privileges and tax breaks over private citizens. Nestle, which takes almost one billion gallons from water-starved California and more water from suburban Michigan well-water leaves the public to suffer any shortages. The company’s chairman, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, believes that “access to water is not a public right.” Nor a human right.
Nestle is a Swiss multinational food and beverage company with over 8,000 brands, 447 factories, 333,000 employees, and operations in 194 countries. Twenty nine of their brands have sales of over $1 billion a year, and in total, they have over 8,000 brands. In addition to creating water shortages, the company uses slaves and children for labor around the world.
Water shortage has many reasons other than climate change: fracking, oil disasters, mining waste, industrial agriculture pollution, disposal of drugs, etc. Bottling water is still an important piece of the picture. This year people think that Oregon has plenty of water, but climate change—and Nestle—may change that. And your state may be next. Water should be a right; people shouldn’t be forced to purchase it because of corporate control.
[Thanks to Ann Hubard for photographs]