Water Usage & Privatization

Water is not the rarest element on Earth, but it is our most precious natural resource because every terrestrial life form—plant, animal and human—depends on H2O for survival. Most people know that water covers about two-thirds of the entire planet’s surface, but fewer are aware that most of that is saltwater, and only about 2.5 percent is freshwater suitable for drinking and growing food. Furthermore, less than 1 percent of the world’s freshwater supply is available to humans and ecosystems because most of it remains frozen in the remote Arctic and Antarctic regions.[1]

Today, at least 1.1 billion people (about one-sixth of the entire human population) do not have adequate access to clean drinking water, and 2.6 billion people lack proper sanitation[2]—causing nearly 250 million cases of disease and 10 to 20 million deaths worldwide every year.[3] And even though water is a renewable resource that can be managed sustainably and equitably, the global water supply is in fact rapidly declining due to misuse, pollution and for-profit privatization gambits. Meanwhile, as the human population continues to grow, water consumption is doubling every 20 years,[4] and other factors (like global warming) will also have major impacts on future freshwater reserves.[5] With population experts projecting that two-thirds of the human race will live in water-stressed areas of the globe by 2025,[6] political analysts speculate that wars will be fought over dwindling water resources in the coming decades.[7]

Animal agriculture and water use 

water_small1Agriculture uses far more freshwater worldwide—70 percent of the global total—than any other human activity.[8] Much of this water goes to crop irrigation, but a significant proportion (about 8 percent of the total) is used to raise animals for “meat,” dairy and eggs. Animal agriculture’s water consumption varies greatly by country, however: for instance, in the US, animal agriculture accounts for nearly half of all freshwater used every year, with a withdrawal rate of about 1.8 billion gallons per day.[9]

Irrigating crops fed to animals raised for food is by far the industry’s main use of water. According to a Cornell University study, 253 million tons of grain are fed to these animals in the US every year, requiring a total of 66 trillion gallons of water to produce.[10] Animal agriculture also uses water for:

– hydration (providing water for animals to drink);
– cleaning (hosing down animals and facilities, and flushing out waste);
– processing (slaughter, evisceration and de-boning);
– rendering (turning unused body parts into by-products); and
– leather tanning (soaking hides to remove salt and dirt).[11]

“Meat” production also requires differing amounts of water depending on the species of animal being “processed.” For instance, pig production consumes the most water of any livestock sector because many factory farms rely on “flushing systems”—basically, the pigs live on slatted floors through which their waste drops into water troughs underneath that are periodically drained, conveying manure to slurry lagoons.[12] On a per-“unit” basis, processing “poultry” (i.e., “meat” from chickens, turkeys and ducks) trends toward greater water use than pig or cow production. This is due to the use of water for additional processes, like stunning birds into paralysis using electrified water “baths” before cutting their throats, scalding still-living birds in boiling water prior to de-feathering, transporting unsalable body parts (like heads and feet) to rendering piles using chutes, and preserving carcasses by chilling them in tanks.[13] As one of the primary causes of water pollution in the world, industrialized animal agriculture also depletes the world’s freshwater supply by contaminating it with manure, fertilizer runoff and other toxic compounds. Although some of the freshwater used by the industry is reused or recycled, between 80 and 95 percent of it becomes wastewater. This residue typically contains blood, feces, hair, fat, feathers, and bones, and may also harbor pathogens (such as Salmonella) that can infect drinking water and make people sick.[14]

Water privatization: Corporate vs. civic control 

Water is a right and can be conserved for the benefit of all, yet the animal agriculture industry uses and pollutes a disproportionate share of this essential resource even while millions of people die every year for lack of clean water. But as scarcity increases, water’s value as an economic commodity rises—and multinational conglomerates are only too eager to profit from this deteriorating situation by buying up water rights on every continent. Like the animal agriculture industry’s overuse of water, privatization is another major threat to the world’s freshwater supply.

About 90 percent of the world’s freshwater stocks currently remain under public control, but privatization is becoming more common as revenue-strapped governments increasingly cannot afford to maintain and repair crumbling municipal water purification and delivery systems often built decades ago.[15] Historically, however, in places where privatization has been established, it has proven to be another cause of—rather than a solution to—chronic water shortage problems. That is, because corporations are (by their nature) more concerned with making money than serving people’s and communities’ best interests, water privatization has led to corruption, lack of corporate accountability, loss of local agency, weakened water quality standards, and steep rate hikes that eliminate poor people’s access to water.

Example 1: Nestlé in the US 

water_small2Nestlé, one of the largest food corporations in the world, is also in the water business, leasing or owning 50 spring sites throughout the US.[16] However, in many places where Nestlé operates, they have unlawfully extracted water from aquifers,[17] engaged in price-gouging tactics,[18] and polarized communities.[19] For example, in Colorado, over a period of a few years, Nestlé spent a large amount of money negotiating a water deal with the three-member Board of Chaffee County Commissioners and with the Aurora City Council, while buying land in the areas near where the Arkansas River runs. Close to 80 percent of the county’s 17,000 residents opposed the deal,[20] mainly because environmentalists (citing Nestlé’s detrimental impact in communities where they already operate) raised alarms about the potentially devastating consequences for Aurora City’s watershed and nearby wetlands.[21] After a 7 to 4 vote of approval by the Aurora City Council and a unanimous agreement by the Chaffee County Commissioners, over the next decade Nestlé will extract 650 million gallons of Arkansas Valley water so that every day they can load 25 trucks with 8,000 gallons of water, drive 120 miles to a bottling plant in Denver, and fill millions of plastic Arrowhead Springs water bottles to be sold in the western US.[22]In addition to being targeted by locals who want control of their water sources back, Nestlé is also at the epicenter of the growing bottled water controversy. The company dominates nearly a third of the lucrative US bottled water market[23] with seven domestically-produced subsidiary brands (including Arrowhead Springs, Calistoga and Poland Spring)—making Nestlé a key contributor to one of today’s most significant environmental threats. That is, US consumers purchase about 28 billion bottles of water every year, but recycle only about 23 percent of the plastic petroleum-based containers used for water or soda. The rest end up polluting roadsides, landfills and oceans, and leach toxins into ecosystems while taking about a millennium to degrade.[24]

Example 2: Vivendi and Suez in Mexico 

Water privatization now has a firm foothold in Mexico, thanks to President Vincente Fox’s PROMAGUA initiative, which uses a $250 million World Bank grant to promote privatization of the country’s water resources. This program, now operational in 27 of Mexico’s 30 states, encourages cities with populations of 100,000 or more to sign their water concessions over to corporations for contracts lasting between five and fifty years. This has allowed Vivendi and Suez, two major players in the water game, to partner with smaller companies to turn one-fifth of Mexico’s municipal water systems into profit-making businesses. However, in the process of making massive amounts of money from Mexico’s formerly public utilities, these multinational corporations have drastically raised rates, cut service to customers who can’t pay their bills, weakened water quality, and skimped on making essential infrastructure improvements.[25] While these two companies are foreign-owned, they also have large operations in the US. Vivendi became North America’s largest water company in 1999 after purchasing US Filter (a leading manufacturer of commercial and residential water purification systems).[26] Suez, meanwhile, is the parent company of United Water, the second-largest private operator of municipal water systems in the US—where it has established a reputation for environmental destructiveness. For example, Suez has been responsible for sewage overflows in Milwaukee, Wisc.; contaminating drinking water in Gloucester, Mass.; and dozens of discharge limit violations in Gary, Ind.[27] So if Suez, Vivendi or another private corporation tries to take control of your community’s municipal water system, be sure to join or organize an effort to keep this resource in public hands.

Example 3: Bechtel in Bolivia 

The persistent pattern of social, environmental and economic abuse committed by water privateers has sparked a global movement opposing corporate control of community resources that has won some decisive battles. Among the most famous of these victories was the Bolivian uprising against the Bechtel Corporation, the fifth largest privately-owned company in the US,[28] which had taken over the Cochabamba region’s water supply in 1999. The company raised rates by 300 percent,[29]cutting off service to people who could no longer afford water—and even prevented residents from collecting rainwater unless they obtained a legal permit. Bechtel’s oppressive policies prompted several months of massive riots, which dissuaded foreign investors from doing business in the country. Bechtel subsequently abandoned their Cochabamban operation in 2000, surrendering control of the water supply back to the people,[30] but the struggle against water privatization continues in Bolivia[31] and other South American nations.[32]

Example 4: Coca-Cola in India 

Soon after a Coca-Cola Company plant was licensed to manufacture their beverages in the village of Plachimada, they started unlawfully pumping an additional 1.5 million liters of water a day from local reserves. This caused the water table to fall—leaving farmers without enough water to irrigate their crops, and draining the community’s drinking water supply. While Coca-Cola stole the people’s water, the company’s plant produced waste that contaminated agricultural fields, underground wells and free-flowing canals, forcing residents to walk for miles just to get clean drinking water. In response, Plachimadans started a movement to shut the bottling plant down that gained international attention. Their rallying cry: “When you drink Coke, you drink the blood of the people!” The protesters successfully drove Coca-Cola out in 2004, when the plant was officially closed, inspiring dozens of other campaigns throughout the country against soda production plants that exploit local water supplies.[33] Yet private corporations continue to take over India’s municipal water resources with similarly disastrous effects.[34]

How You Can Help 

You can radically reduce your dietary water consumption by going vegan, because growing plant foods requires far less water than producing animal products.[35] You can also make a difference by not buying bottled water and boycotting companies like Nestlé and Coca-Cola, whose water privatization schemes hurt people and the environment.


[1] “Earth’s Freshwater.” National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/media/earths-fresh-water/ (8/23/17)

[2] “Coping with water scarcity.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2007.
http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/focus/2007/1000521/index.html (12/04/10)

[3] Malik, A., Abubakar, M. et al. “Water-Borne Diseases, Cost of Illness and Willingness to Pay for Diseases Interventions in Rural Communities of Developing Countries.” Iranian Journal of Public Health. 2012. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3469006/ (9/6/17)

[4] Interlandi, Jeneen. “The New Oil: Should private companies control our most precious natural resource?” Newsweek. October 08, 2010. http://www.newsweek.com/2010/10/08/the-race-to-buy-up-the-world-s-water.html# (12/04/10)

[5] Gleick, P. H., Singh, A., and Shi, H. “Threats to the World’s Freshwater Resources.” Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security. 2001. http://pacinst.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/threats_to_the_worlds_freshwater1.pdf (9/7/17)

[6] “Water Scarcity.” UN Water. Retrieved 8/23/17 from http://www.unwater.org/water-facts/scarcity/

[7] Shiva, Vandana. Water Wars: Privatization, pollution, and profit. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002.

[8] “Aquastat fact sheet.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2008.http://www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/water_use/index.stm (4/12/13)

[9] “Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2000.” US Geological Survey.http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/2004/circ1268/htdocs/table08.html (12/04/10)

[10] Pimentel, D., Berger, B. et al. “Water Resources, Agriculture and the Environment.” College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University. 2004.http://ecommons.cornell.edu/bitstream/1813/352/1/pimentel_report_04-1.pdf (12/04/10)

[11] “Livestock’s role in water depletion and pollution,” Livestock’s Long Shadow, Food and Agriculture Organization. Retrieved 3/8/2013 from ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/a0701e/a0701e04.pdf

[12] Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options.” The United Nations: Food and Agriculture Organization. 2006. Retrieved 3/8/2013 from http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM

[13] “Livestock’s role in water depletion and pollution,” Livestock’s Long Shadow, Food and Agriculture Organization. Retrieved 3/8/2013 from ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/a0701e/a0701e04.pdf

[14] “Livestock’s role in water depletion and pollution,” Livestock’s Long Shadow, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Retrieved 3/8/2013 from ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/a0701e/a0701e04.pdf

[15] Barlow, M., and Clarke, T. “Water Privatization.” Global Policy Forum. 2004.http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/209/43398.html (12/04/10)

[16] Correll, DeeDee. “Out West, a new kind of water war.” Los Angeles Times. April 02, 2009.http://articles.latimes.com/2009/apr/02/nation/na-bottled-water2 (12/04/10)

[17] Historical Perspective: MCWC vs Nestlé Waters North America/Ice Mountain.” Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. Retrieved 9/4/17 from http://savemiwater.org/historical-perspective-mcwc-vs-nestle-waters-north-americaice-mountain/

[18] Dayen, David. “How Nestlé Gets Away With Pumping California’s Water for Next to Nothing.” Los Angeles Magazine. August 12, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.lamag.com/citythinkblog/nestle-gets-away-pumping-californias-water-next-nothing/ (9/8/16)

[19] Conlin, Michelle. “A Town Torn Apart by Nestlé.” Business Week. April 16, 2008. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2008-04-15/a-town-torn-apart-by-nestl (9/7/17)

[20] Kersgaard, Scot. “Nestlé water deal rained down cash on key Chaffee County locals.” The Colorado Independent. August 12, 2010. http://coloradoindependent.com/55554/nestle-to-begin-draining-millions-of-gallons-of-arkansas-river-water (12/11/10)

[21] Kersgaard, Scot. “Nestlé OK’d to turn Arkansas River springs into bottled water product.” The Colorado Independent. July 27, 2010.
http://coloradoindependent.com/58242/nestle-ok%E2%80%99d-to-turn-arkansas-river-springs-into-bottled-water-product (12/11/10)

[22] Kersgaard, Scot. “Aurora may not have right to sell water to Nestle.” The Colorado Independent. June 25, 2010. http://coloradoindependent.com/56249/aurora-may-not-have-the-right-to-sell-water-to-nestle (12/11/10)

[23] “All Bottled Up: Nestlé’s Pursuit of Community Water.” Food & Water Watch. 2009http://www.scribd.com/doc/9739406/All-Bottled-Up-Nestles-Pursuit-of-Community-Water (12/04/10)

[24] Grossman, David. “Breaking the bottled water habit.” USA Today. September 22, 2008.http://www.usatoday.com/travel/columnist/grossman/2008-09-19-bottled-water_N.htm (12/04/10)

[25] Barlow, M., and Clarke, T. “Water Privatization.” Global Policy Forum. 2004.http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/209/43398.html (12/04/10)

[26] Deutsch, Claudia. “Vivendi of France Acquiring U.S. Filter.” The New York Times. March 23, 1999. http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/23/business/vivendi-of-france-acquiring-us-filter.html(12/04/10)

[27] “Suez Environnement’s Poor Record in the United States.” Food & Water Watch. 2010. Retrieved 9/7/17 from https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/sites/default/files/Suez%20Report%20May%202010.pdf

[28] Garofalo, Pat. “Facts vs. Fiction: Conservatives Claims About Small Business Taxes Are Bogus.” Center for American Progress. November 15, 2010.
http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2010/11/small_biz_claims.html (12/11/10)

[29] “Bolivian Activist Oscar Olivera on Bechtel’s Privatization of Rainwater and Why Evo Morales Should Remember the Ongoing Struggle Over Water.” Democracy Now! Interview with Amy Goodman. October 05, 2006http://www.democracynow.org/2006/10/5/bolivian_activist_oscar_olivera_on_bechtels (12/11/10)

[30] “Water Privatization Spreads, Despite Detractors.” E/The Environmental Magazine. September 18, 2010. http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/latest/water-privatization (12/11/10)

[31] Shultz, Jim. “The Politics of Water in Bolivia.” The Nation. January 28, 2005.
http://www.thenation.com/article/politics-water-bolivia (12/13/10)

[32] “Water Privatization: Latin America.” Food & Water Watch. Retrieved 3/10/2013 from http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/global/latin-america/water-privatization-3/

[33] Shiva, Vandana. “Resisting Water Privatisation, Building Water Democracy.” Paper for the World Water Forum. 2006. http://www.globalternative.org/downloads/shiva-water.pdf (9/4/17)

[34] Kumar, Rahul. “Indian Water Activists Launch Anti-Privatization Campaign.” OneWorld. February 7, 2006. Retrieved on 9/4/17 from http://www.lookingglassnews.org/viewstory.php?storyid=4890

[35] Yacoubou, Jeanne. “The Vegetarian Solution to Water Pollution.” Vegetarian Journal. 2009.http://www.vrg.org/journal/vj2009issue1/2009_issue1_water_pollution.php (12/04/10)

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