Economy

Poisoning The Well? Nestlé Accused Of Exploiting Water Supplies For Bottled Brands

A new documentary film takes food giant Nestlé to task for its water bottling practices. Critics say the multinational is busy extracting ground water for its bottled brands and leaving locals, often in poor corners of the world, with the dirty remains.

In the village of Sindh, Pakistan, obtaining clean local water is a precious achievement.
In the village of Sindh, Pakistan, obtaining clean local water is a precious achievement.

ZURICH - In the small Pakistani community of Bhati Dilwan, a former village councilor says children are being sickened by filthy water. Who's to blame? He says it's bottled water-maker Nestlé, which dug a deep well that is depriving locals of potable water. "The water is not only very dirty, but the water level sank from 100 to 300 to 400 feet," Dilwan says.

The testimony is a key moment in the new documentary film "Bottled Life" by Swiss filmmaker Urs Schnell and journalist Res Gehriger. The film opens in Swiss theaters on Jan. 26. The village councilor interviewed in the film says Nestlé refused the village's request for clean water to be piped in.

The notoriously bad drinking water in Pakistan and elsewhere is the reason for the success of the Pure Life brand. A good 10 years ago, the Swiss food company began adding minerals to ground water and bottling it. Today, Pure Life Purified Water Enhanced With Minerals is the largest water brand in the world – "a jewel in our portfolio," according to John Harris, head of Nestlé Waters.

In view of the fact that every day more children die from drinking dirty water than AIDS, war, traffic accidents and malaria put together, Maude Barlow, a former UN chief advisor for water issues, states: "When a company like Nestlé comes along and says, Pure Life is the answer, we're selling you your own ground water while nothing comes out of your faucets anymore or if it does it's undrinkable – that's more than irresponsible, that's practically a criminal act."

In response to questions put to it by Tages Anzeiger, Nestlé communicated in writing that it had built two water filtering facilities that were providing over 10,000 people in Pakistan's Sheikhupura with clean drinking water. Construction of a further facility was planned for 2012. The company said they had also built two schools in Sheikhupura.

Nestlé is not the only company to create a huge business with big profit potential by bottling ground water -- Danone and Coca-Cola do it too. However, the way Nestlé goes about it, as depicted in the film, is in stark contrast to the image the company seeks to project. Nestlé likes to see itself as a global problem solver out not only for profits but to "create shared values." In 2007, when Schnell and Gehriger began working on the movie, then Nestlé spokesman François-Xavier Perroud called it "the wrong film at the wrong time." Several times between 2007 and 2009 the company denined requests for interviews with company managers. It also refused to allow visits to bottling facilities.

The company's present spokesperson, Melanie Kohli, told the Tages Anzeiger that Nestlé had reached the conclusion that the project would reflect a one-sided and unfair view of company activity and those who worked for Nestlé. "Consequently, we declined to work with the filmmakers. Our carefully considered decision was the right one at the time."

Tracking the company's record, from Ethiopia to Nigeria

Undeterred, journalist Gehriger visited a refugee camp in Ethiopia where, in 2003, Nestlé had installed a water treatment facility for $750,000. Two years later, the company pulled out. Since then the facility has not been functioning properly, and water shortages have returned.

In Lagos, Nigeria, Gehriger discovered that families have to spend up to half their household budget on water in canisters, and that only those who can afford it drink Pure Life. Then there are the communities in the U.S. state of Maine who are fighting Nestlé because it pumps ground water and spring water in huge quantities – which it can do legally: whoever owns land can pump as much water as they like.

Nestlé pumps several million cubic meters annually and transports the water in tanker trucks to bottling plants. "They're using our water to make profits, a litre doesn't even cost them a cent," one woman complains. "They're selling the water we use to flush toilets and wash our hands as expensive spring water," says another. But since Nestlé brings the communities tax dollars, officials welcome the company, which is supported by an armada of lawyers and PR people.

Read the original story in German

Photo - UK department of International Development

*Newsbites are digest items, not direct translations

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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