Activist countries

The water billionaires scam to poor countries

— Backlash

MEGA companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Danone make about 494 times what they spend by bottling water in Mexico and reselling it to locals who have no choice but to buy it.

In Mexico and other poor countries and regions, companies take water from aquifers, springs, rivers and lakes and put it in plastic bottles or turn it into flavored and sugary drinks, then discard their waste and dirty water into water sources. This, along with other industrial pollution that is discharged disproportionately into rural, indigenous and poorer communities, means residents are unable to drink tap water and end up paying exorbitant prices to corporations. European and American.

In exchange for taking water from Mexico, Mexicans give water bottling companies $66 billion a year. Coca Cola, Pepsi, Danone, Nestlé, Bimbo and other bottling and junk food companies extract more than 133 billion liters of water, then discharge at least 119 billion liters of contaminated water into water basins and aquifers.

Unequal access to water

MEXICO is a dry country and water is limited. But companies are allowed to take as much water as they want, and little is left for small rural farmers and for domestic consumption.

I spoke to Nahui, a leader of the Peoples United who are resisting Danone’s water brand, Bonafont’s continued theft of their water in Puebla state. For her safety, she requested that only one name be used. We talked in the backyard of the local person’s house. Hens roamed around us and birds chirped loudly in the trees above, but behind us the forty or so pear trees were totally empty of fruit. Bonafont’s extraction of water from the indigenous Nahua region caused local wells and water supplies to dry up.

“There is a lot of interest in the territories where indigenous people live because they are areas where people have habits and customs of dealing with life, rivers, forests,” Nahui says. This, added to the discrimination, makes these areas more attractive for business, she explained.

United Peoples brings together more than 20 Nahua communities in the region. Early last year they closed and then took over the local Bonafont bottling plant and converted it into a community center, but Mexican state and local security forces backed the company and evicted them. from the factory last month.

I also spoke to Adriana Flores, a researcher at the Transdisciplinary University Center for Sustainability in Mexico City. “Coca Cola, Nestlé and certain pharmaceuticals have been granted access to entire aquifers, millions of cubic meters of water, and that means that in the event of a drought, they don’t care. They will take the water The conditions of access to water are very unequal. Those who have the financial means have guaranteed water,” she said. Meanwhile, the others go without; 12 million people in Mexico do not have access to a running water supply.

Stealing water and polluting waterways is very profitable

THE global bottled water market was worth $230.4 billion in 2020, and the main beneficiaries are all American and European companies. Pepsi Co’s Aquifina brand tops the list, followed by Coca-Cola’s Dasani and Glaceau Smartwarter, Nestle’s Perrier, Danone (headquartered in France), Ozarka and others.

To access residents’ water, these companies use a range of underhanded methods. In the Nahua region, residents of a town recently voted on whether the area would be governed by municipal or indigenous law. All workers in the voting booths could be seen with Bonafont bottled water. To the south, in Chiapas, Coca Cola’s aggressive marketing includes using the homes of indigenous peoples as distribution points. The company also fought a legal battle in Oaxaca because the state banned the sale of single-use PET bottles, and in Toluca it operates its largest plant in the world. But the region faces extremely high water stress, and the 3 billion liters of water that Coca Cola consumes only makes the situation worse.

Meanwhile, corporations deliberately move into poorer countries to get away with polluting more. In Guadalajara, where there is a lot of heavy industry, Flores says the water “smells really bad, it tastes like metal…sometimes it burns my eyes”. His team analyzed industries near two watersheds and found that milk processing plants, pharmaceuticals and others were dumping their waste directly into water sources, “without any oversight, any transparency, environmental laws are not applied”.

The Santiago River, also near an industrial area, was covered in scum one and a half meters high. Activists and scientists have blamed the Swiss pharmaceutical, Ciba Geigy, now Novartis. There is no requirement in Mexico for companies to report the contaminants they discharge into water supplies or soil, and European companies which are banned from using deadly substances such as benzene or bisphenol in their country of origin, do not face this obstacle in Mexico.

But countries like Mexico don’t have lax environmental enforcement because they care less. Poorer nations have been pressured to accept polluting industries on the pretext of “expanding” their economies. Water licenses increased in Mexico by 3191% between 1995 and 2019 – a period that matches the NAFTA agreement that completely opened up Mexico to American and Canadian business and manufacturing, and banned Mexico from using environmental regulations against them.

“Free trade agreements allow companies to basically do whatever they want…Mexico is a tax haven for them,” says Nahui, explaining that Bonafont was able to steal water from indigenous communities for decades through “state protection”.

The United States outsources its pollution and is also one of the largest exporters of plastic waste, sending its waste to Canada, South Korea, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia , Mexico, Thailand, etc. Canada can also then re-export the waste.

In addition, poorer countries have fewer financial resources to monitor and sanction corporate pollution or to treat contaminated water. In Mexico, only 25 to 57% of wastewater is treated and more than half of the treatment plants are not in working order. Some 80% of water bodies are contaminated by industrial waste.

The number of water monitoring centers in Mexico has halved in recent years, Flores says, due to budget cuts. The industry does “whatever it wants” because authorities are more interested in spending money on business-friendly projects like the so-called Maya Train, she claims.

And bottled water companies only ease the pressure on governments to improve water supplies. Nestlé started selling Pure Life in Lahore, Pakistan in 1998. Local experts say back then they could go anywhere and get tap water for free, but today everything everyone drinks bottled water.

Correlation between countries with highly polluted water and high consumption of bottled water

WHILE the resources that go into bottling water would be better used to treat tap water and prevent pollution, this is never the case. Instead, the countries that consume the most bottled water do so because they have to, with the exception of many European countries that have faced strong marketing campaigns that feature bottled water as a healthy lifestyle choice. The main consumers of bottled water per capita are Mexico, Thailand, El Salvador, Indonesia, China, Brazil, Romania, Germany, the United States and India, while countries with the worst water are India, Germany, Indonesia, Brazil, China, Thailand and Mexico.

Safely managed drinking water is always a privilege of the wealthiest countries. Elsewhere, lack of access to tap water only exacerbates inequalities. The poorest regions are more vulnerable in times of drought or crisis if there is little water available. Treating diseases from water contamination is more difficult for people in poor areas, and small farmers struggle to survive when water is limited.

“We have a certain amount of water available to us for food, energy and production, and…the fact that water bottling companies are guaranteed amounts of water reduces the amount available for other users, rural and indigenous communities,” says Florès.

Animals are also affected. The environmental damage caused by bottled water is 1,400 times that of tap water, in terms of species loss.

Charities won’t solve water inequities

MKANY charities take an individual approach to the water crisis in the poorest regions. But the donations they are campaigning for will not end corporate abuse.

Many charities and NGOs are also spreading strong messages about the harm caused by plastic bottles. This message is accurate and helpful, but it focuses on consumer choices and ignores the role of global power and economic inequality. Some organizations even speak of “collaboration” with industry, although in reality companies like Danone do not engage or listen to the communities they affect.

“We have been cut off from deciding what happens to water in the areas where we live. Instead of seeing access to water as a human right, it is expensive and inaccessible,” says Nahui.

CounterPunch.org, March 21. Tamara Pearson is a Latin American-based author and journalist.