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Nestlé's bottled water scam shows we need to curb corporate power in B.C.

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This piece on a maddening (and perfectly legal!) corporate scam in B.C. was first published in my column for The Source / La Source, a bilingual Vancouver newspaper. 

There's a memorable line by Fraser Institute founder Michael Walker in The Corporation, a documentary film made by Vancouver's Joel Bakan, that captures perfectly the extreme mindset of those who put profits above people and the planet.

"It sounds like you're advocating private ownership of every square inch of the planet," an interviewer asked Walker.

"It sounds outlandish to say [but] we want to have the whole universe, the whole of the earth owned," he replied.

Land, water, air -- and every other substance on Earth and beyond. Walker is merely expressing the logic underlying the whole global system, dominated as it is by the demands of capital accumulation.

Now, corporations haven't quite privatized the whole universe, but their power and reach has achieved galactic proportions. And here in B.C. we've recently learned of just how deep corporate power has gone.

It turns out the multinational Nestlé has been taking over 265 million litres of B.C. freshwater from the aquifer that supplies Hope and the surrounding area. They've been bottling the water, and selling it across western Canada. And they’ve taken it all for free.

Nestlé, unsurprisingly, has been expanding the size of this operation.

"We've had meetings with the town council and it was never designed to be a large plant … now it's a 24-7 operation and it was never designed to be that," said Sue Savola, a local activist with Kw’o:kw’e:hala Eco Retreat, in an interview with Global TV.

The extent of this H2O plundering is not even the worst part of it; the truly shocking thing is that Nestlé hasn't even broken any laws.

It turns out the B.C. Water Act -- passed into law in 1909! -- does not require charging for groundwater withdrawals. Actually it doesn't even require tracking them at all. B.C. is operating with a century-old law and the bottled water industry, which has really only emerged in the past couple of decades, is shamelessly exploiting the loophole.

"It's really the Wild West out here in terms of groundwater," Linda Nowlan of the World Wildlife Fund Canada told the Province newspaper.

In the wake of these revelations, local residents and First Nations in Hope and the Fraser Valley have expressed their concerns.

The response from the provincial government has been tepid at best. I haven’t heard a peep about this from Christy Clark, who I guess is busy enjoying her summer by-election victory lap. The Ministry of Environment has indicated there will finally be regulation implemented in 2014, with a proposed Water Sustainability Act.

No one in B.C. should be quieted by vague government promises right now, however. Nestlé has been robbing us blind, and the least we can do is mobilize and show some real outrage. Sustained public protest is the only way to ensure meaningful regulation is enacted.

Water, a fundamental basis of life on Earth, should never be privatized or allowed to be looted for private profits. It's an essential part of the commons that should be held in trust to meet the needs of all.

Worldwide, many battles have been fought in recent decades to protect water. Perhaps the most noteworthy was the 2000 'Water War' in Cochabamba, Bolivia. In that impoverished country, the multinational corporation Bechtel conspired with the right-wing governor to enact a plan involving a World Bank financed dam and new water rates, in which Bechtel would retain the right even to collect rainwater and then charge the locals for its use.

From January to April 2000, residents of Cochabamba revolted. Protests culminated in a four-day general strike. Police and military repression resulted in many injuries and the death one high school student, Victor Hugo Daza. In the end, the water privatization was reversed. The people won because they mobilized with huge numbers and determination.

This is not to say that Nestlé’s actions are analogous to Bechtel’s in Bolivia. But we do need to respond with serious action -- and with anger. I mean, they’re taking our water for free, bottling it and selling it back to us.

Water is life. So when the Michael Walkers of the world and their corporate friends are working 24/7 to reduce H2O to just another commodity for their profits, we have to fight back like we mean it.


Photo: Elyce Feliz, Flickr


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