In a workshop titled “Grassroots Struggle Against Water Privatization: The Fight against Corporate Water Bottling Companies” at the 2006 Midwest Social Forum, four panelists outlined recent struggles against water privatization in the Midwest states of Michigan and Wisconsin, in the United States, and across the world. The panel consisted of Don Roy of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, Arlene Kanno of Wisconsin-based Concerned Citizens of Newport, Orin Langelle of the Global Justice Ecology Project and Jessica Roach of Food and Water Watch, all of whom have been active in these struggles both in their local communities and within the global context of resistance to the commodification of water.
Arlene Kanno, who is involved with Concerned Citizens of Newport, a group that successfully fought and prevented a bottling operation near the Wisconsin Dells, outlined what has become a fairly typical process through which a large multinational company—in their case Nestlé—comes to an area and seeks to develop the necessary infrastructure for a large bottled water factory. In this case, Nestlé entered an unincorporated area inhabited by many farmers and people who had moved out of Wisconsin’s urban centers of Milwaukee and Madison seeking a more quiet life in the country, and sought to build a 2 mile pipeline for water along with an additional well at the bottling plant as part of a 320 acre development to host the operation (70 acres of which would be paved). Nestlé initially claimed that they would leave the area if the people wanted them to, and once opposition to the project was organized, Nestlé reneged on its promise and stayed in the area despite requests by citizens. The group then went to their state legislator who was unwilling to help them, citing the fact that they were a “freshman” legislator and essentially had no power to do anything if they were to be reelected. In response to the failings of the legislature to deal with Nestlé’s water bottling, the group began an extensive public relations and popular education campaign that emphasized the plant’s threat to prairie restoration efforts, its devastation of wetlands, ruining of the area’s “quiet” way of life, and the taking of the area’s water for private gain. The group also worked extensively to organize sportsmen, nature groups, native groups, poets, artists, and others that had an interest in protecting the area. When it became clear that Nestlé and the state were not going to bow to public pressure, the group filed a lawsuit based on the fact that water is the public trust (although the idea of a “public trust” is not a statue in Wisconsin and has no real power) and that the Wisconsin Environmental Protection Act mandates the government’s protection of water resources (although this seems void if the government wants a harmful development). Following an initial delay, the lawsuit was one by the Concerned Citizens of Newport, although they have continued organizing after stopping the plant because their victory resulted in Nestlé moving its bottling efforts to Michigan.
Of particular interest to residents living in West Michigan was Don Roy’s discussion of the struggle to stop Nestlé from pumping and bottling water in Mecosta County. Roy explained how Nestlé, a large multinational corporation, came into Michigan almost immediately after its defeat in Wisconsin and sought to apply the lessons that it learned there in combating the grassroots movement that formed in Michigan to oppose Nestlé’s bottling operation. Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) was one of the groups to come together opposing the bottling of Michigan’s water, objecting to it based on the potential for environmental impairment and harm with the operation being near streams, lakes, and wetlands; the commodification and privatization for profit of a vital public resource (Nestlé only paid for its permit and pays the state and its residents no additional money for taking its water); and the fact that bottling water is not a sustainable form of economic development. MCWC formed in December of 2000 and has seen its membership grow to 1,800 and recently was successful in obtaining an out of court settlement to a case in Michigan Circuit Court that requires Nestlé to limit how much they are bottling (400 gallons per minute) and to submit data on their operations to a hydro-geologist working with MCWC. The group is currently in the process of petitioning the Michigan Supreme Court in a case that seeks to stop the operation completely and is considering other avenues to pursue the struggle against water privatization in Michigan. Roy cited the Michigan Water Law, passed in early 2006, as an inadequate means of protection with a large loophole for bottled water in that it declares that any bottling operation is not a diversion if it is bottling water in containers that hold less than 5.7 gallons (of course, the average bottling plant in the United States bottles 300 million gallons per year). MCWC is currently considering a constitutional ballot initiative for 2006 that would protect Michigan’s water in light of the failure of the state’s governors and legislature to take adequate measures, is advocating for the extension of the bottle deposit law to include non-carbonated beverages in light of the fact that 90% of water bottles are never recycled, and looking towards increasing coordination with other environmental groups and hosting a possible annual conference on water privatization in Mecosta County.
While companies such as Nestlé can make as much as one million dollars per day in profits from bottling plants such as those in Mecosta County and frequently receive multi-million dollar tax abatements, there have been several successes in the fight against water privatization. Jessica Roach of Food and Water Watch detailed several of these recent victories against water privatization in the United States including New Orleans rejecting a bid by Suez to privatize the cities water due to grassroots organizing, a successful organizing effort in Felton, California that resulted in citizens taxing themselves to buy back their water from RWE Germany, and an ongoing struggle to prevent the privatization of Lexington, Kentucky’s water by RWE Germany. Roach also referenced Food and Water Watch’s “Faulty Pipes” report on the history of water privatization and its failures as a model that provides for human needs. The corporations seeking to bottle and privatize water in the United States are active around the world and have been met with resistance in areas such as Central America where companies such as Suez and Bechtel are being driven from the region by popular resistance and replaced with innovative structures like the cooperatives and review boards being developed to provide democratic models of water management. Panelist Orin Langelle expanded on the international resistance to water privatization and showed the audience a slideshow of photos from the International Forum in Defense of Water held this past March in Mexico. The Forum is held as an alternative to the World Water Forum that is sponsored by entities such as the World Bank and Coca-Cola and designed to commodify water rather than protecting it as a basic right.