WASHINGTON - The Sierra Club, a U.S.-based environmental organisation and shareholder in Nestlé and Corporate Accountability International, led a gathering of concerned citizens at Nestlé’s North American headquarters in the north-eastern city of Greenwich, Connecticut to call on the company to "respect the right of local communities to exercise democratic control over the use of their water."
"Water is essential to life on this earth and to the viability of local communities," said Ruth Caplan, chair of the Sierra Club’s Water Privatisation Task Force. "Nestlé is bottling communities’ spring water without their informed consent. Nestlé profits while consumers pay more than a thousand times the cost of their local water."
"(Water bottling) companies don’t bring many jobs and often get tax breaks so there is no tax return to the local community and the profits go out of the community," said Peter Gleick, president of the independent Pacific Institute, based in Oakland, California.
The Sierra Club intends to use its clout as a shareholder to demand a reform of Nestlé’s practices and make Nestlé acquire "full and informed consent" from local communities where water is being bottled.
Criticism of Nestlé stems from a series of cases in which Nestlé Waters North America was found to have damaged the environment through their pumping operations.
Citizens groups in the states of Maine, Michigan and California have all gone to court to contest Nestlé’s bottling operations.
Terri Swifter, head of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, says courts have ruled that Nestlé’s pumping operations in the state are harmful to the environment. "Water belongs to the people, not to Nestlé. Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation will continue to do all in our power to protect Michigan waters from being pumped for profit so our water will be available for future generations," she said.
The Sierra Club says Nestlé’s bottling operations in the United States have already degraded lakes, harmed wetlands, lowered water tables and continue to pose a threat to residential and agricultural water supplies.
"At the local level, the effect of water withdrawal on local ecosystems and water systems is a concern. Can the plant extract water without damaging the natural environment or the community water supply? In most cases, yes, but not always. The industry hasn’t been very good at ensuring it won’t have bad impacts," Gleick told IPS.
Of great concern to the Sierra Club is the idea that water is being sold at the market rate and "should not be relegated to the status of a commodity."
Water is an essential human right which should not depend on the market to determine who can afford it and who has access, says the group.
"Nestlé should not be undermining public confidence in tap water by misleading the public to believe that their bottled water is somehow better than tap water when tap water is more closely monitored for quality than bottled water," Victoria Kaplan, organiser at Food & Water Watch, told IPS.
Nestlé has consistently failed to obtain explicit consent from communities affected by bottling operations at nearby water sources that serve the communities’ water needs, says The Sierra Club, which urges the company to allow communities to vote with regards to Nestlé’s activities and ensure that the company does not use its disproportionate power to influence the communities’ decisions.
In recent years, local residents have taken a stronger stand against companies’ using their land, such as in the Nigerian Delta, where communities expelled oil companies, and in the Peruvian town of Tambogrande, where members of the community blocked a gold mine.
In 2005, the Framework for Responsible Mining, developed by non-governmental o