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The world's fresh water could be in bigger danger than many people think, and yet companies keep buying and bottling the scarce supply.

In 2017, the World Health Organization reported that nearly 785 million people lack access to basic drinking water services, including 144 million people who subsist searching for surface water. For many people living in the U.S. and other developed countries where municipal water is abundant, reliable and clean, the thought of not having life’s basic necessity readily available is unfathomable.

Water is such an integral aspect of society that throughout history, it’s influenced migrations and even started wars. Yet in the U.S., it’s often an afterthought, only crossing our minds on the rare chance the water supply system fails, such as in Flint, Michigan, and after natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. The anomaly of water abundance and ease of access to which most people have become accustomed could soon be coming to a dramatic end. The same WHO report detailed that because of the effects of climate change, half the world’s population will be living in “water-stressed” areas where the water supply may not be able to keep up with demand by 2025.

As the world’s water supply dwindles, many nations, states and communities are beginning to prioritize their water allocation with stricter regulations. In drought-stricken California, new regulations have been passed that, starting in 2022, limit each person to 55 gallons of water per day, eventually dropping that limit to just 50 gallons or about 34 toilet flushes, according to the Sacramento Bee.

With new water conservation laws being added to the books and other communities promoting conservation through low-flow appliances and faucets, most civic leaders are taking action to reduce their water usage. However, the cogs of industry have shown little concern for the burgeoning water crisis.

In addition to the ever-increasing strain on freshwater resources posed by a rapidly growing population and an industrializing society, the dire effects of climate change are placing more and more of the world’s population at risk of severe drought and water shortages. In a 2018 United Nations report, it was stated that by the year 2050, nearly 5 billion people worldwide could face water shortages as demand rises in developing countries. As water becomes even more of a precious commodity than it currently is, humanity will have to start making dramatic sacrifices to ensure there’s enough water to go around. This will mean finally confronting the world’s addiction to bottled water.

Despite what many younger Americans may believe, bottled water is actually a fairly new phenomenon. In the early days of the U.S., it was common practice for many “healing” springs to bottle their water for sale as so-called medicinal treatments. During the industrial revolution, widespread production of bottled spring water lowered prices enough that many people living in expanding cities with questionable water supplies began to turn to bottled water as an alternative. This practice lasted until 1908, when John Leal implemented the first chlorinated municipal water in Jersey City, which led to a significant drop in the number of typhoid cases seen by the city residents.

Over the next few decades, nearly all municipal water across the U.S. became chlorinated and safer. Bottled water became a thing of the past as more people had access to safe, clean drinking water straight from their taps. Bottled water would only survive in niche markets until the late ‘70s when Perrier began aggressively marketing its product as a status symbol, sparking a public and corporate fervor for bottled water that has continued to this day. Bottled water has become the most consumed beverage in the U.S., according to the corporate research firm Beverage Marketing Corp.

With bottled water as prevalent as ever, it’s important to ask where these companies are getting the water they bottle. To answer this question, look no further than Nestle, the largest bottled water brand globally.

Nestle buys access to springs across the country to meet the demand for its bottled water; however, it has a checkered past of predatory behavior when it comes to securing these water rights. According to a report by The Guardian, Nestle has been under investigation from the U.S. Forest Service for siphoning water from federally owned land to resell at a significant profit. In that same investigation, the Forest Service determined that “the current water extraction is drying up surface water resources” and advised the company to “cease unauthorized diversions.”

Despite this incident, the company continues to secure contracts from various conservation departments of the federal government to continue exploiting America’s natural resources for profit, which could have something to do with the nearly 28 million dollars the company has spent lobbying the federal government since 2010.

Besides exploiting the federal government, an investigation by Bloomberg News found a malignant practice where Nestle targets economically struggling areas by offering a devil’s bargain of new jobs for favorable municipal water rates, looser regulations and tax breaks. Once in these communities, Nestle takes massive amounts of water, often straining the communities’ water supply for pennies on the dollar. In its Evart, Michigan, plant, Nestle pays an annual rate of $200 dollars for access to pump nearly 130 million gallons of water.

Nestle isn’t ignorant of the problem of water scarcity. In fact, it’s known for decades and saw the perfect opportunity for economic profit. Despite the necessity of water to sustain life, Nestle’s former CEO, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, disagreed with the biological human necessity for water when in 2005, he said, “One perspective held by various NGOs — which I would call extreme — is that water should be declared a human right… the other view is that water is a grocery product, and just as every other product, it should have a market value.” Orwell couldn’t have come up with something that dystopian-sounding if he’d tried.

As water resources become more scarce, there needs to be significant regulation and oversight to ensure there’s enough water for everyone and to safeguard against obscene profiteering.

However, with the inefficiency of the federal government to take action, we all need to do our part to protect our most precious natural resource, and the easiest way to safeguard that is to stop buying bottled water as much as possible.

The less power bottled water corporations have over the world, the less likely that we devolve into Nestle’s dystopian vision of selling the right to live to the highest bidder. 

Charlie Jones is a freshman public policy & administration major. Contact Charlie at jones7cr@dukes.jmu.edu.