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How This Small Town Is Winning the Water War Against Nestle

By Alexis Bonogofsky, Truthout

Donna Diehl, a 55-year-old school bus driver from Kunkletown, Pennsylvania, a small historic town located on the edge of the Poconos, wanted to do three things this year: drive the bus, paint her bathroom and learn to crochet. Instead, Diehl, along with dozens of her neighbors, is spending her time trying to stop the largest food and beverage corporation in the world from taking her community's water, putting it in bottles and selling it for a massive profit.

Kunkletown, Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Flickr

Nestle Waters, the North American subsidiary of the Swiss-owned Nestle Corporation, had been active in Kunkletown for years, conducting well testing on a privately owned property adjacent to Diehl's home. Last summer, residents noticed Nestle had rented an office in the local community center. Word spread and with some investigation, Diehl and her neighbors found out that the transnational corporation had been active in the community as early as 2012, testing water quality and quantity with the ultimate goal of constructing and operating a bulk water extraction facility.

In the permit application that Nestle Waters filed with the township, it states the company is proposing to drill two large wells, pump 200,000 gallons of water per day from the aquifer, put it in trucks and transfer it to an existing bottling facility near Allentown, about 20 miles away. It expects 60 truck trips through the town per day. And Nestle isn't going away anytime soon: It plans to pump for 10 years with an option to continue pumping for an additional 15 years, leading to the removal of 73 million gallons of water from the aquifer over the life of the wells.

Concerned residents dove into their local township files and found out that in May 2014, an ordinance was surreptitiously changed in the Eldred Township zoning rules to allow bulk water extraction to occur in a commercial zone. That small, but important rule change opened the gate for Nestle to submit a permit application for bulk water extraction, which, before May 2014, was explicitly illegal in places zoned for commercial use.

Don Moore, an engineer who maintains a blog where he documents, in great detail, the fight to keep Nestle out of Kunkletown, couldn't believe what he was reading.

“One of the things that opened my eyes was the amount of profit for Nestle. To take all this water and hardly any cost. It's unreal," he said.

Diehl organized a community meeting, which took place in her backyard, with about 25 people.

“We knew we had to stop it, but at the time, we didn't know how," Diehl told Truthout.

Global Water Scarcity on the Rise

Kunkletown residents' effort to keep Nestle out of their community is not an isolated or parochial fight. Nestle, which has the largest share of the bottled water market in the U.S., is looking to secure and privatize water resources in the U.S. and around the world.

According to data from the United Nations (UN), around 1.2 billion people or almost one-fifth of the world's population, live in areas of physical water scarcity and 500 million people are approaching this situation. Another 1.6 billion people or almost one-quarter of the world's population, face economic water shortages.

Exacerbating this scarcity are the real and devastating impacts of climate change. The number and severity of droughts caused by climate change are intensifying across the globe and the U.S. As of April 7, 37 percent of the U.S. was experiencing at least moderate drought. These droughts are causing people to draw more and more from groundwater, which the U.S. Geological Survey has found to be declining nationwide.

To make matters worse, governments are not investing enough in public water infrastructure. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the nation's drinking water utilities need $384.2 billion in infrastructure investments over the next 20 years for thousands of miles of pipe as well as thousands of treatment plants and storage tanks to ensure the public health. Consequences of this inadequate investment have been seen in recent high-profile public health crises in Flint, Michigan and the New Jersey public schools. Internationally, the UN finds that investment in public water systems and infrastructure is at an all-time low.

John Stewart, deputy campaigns director for Corporate Accountability International, sees the intersection of water scarcity, climate change and decreased investment in public water infrastructure as a perfect storm for corporations to move in, privatize the water and profit from a shared resource.

“Companies like Nestle don't see this situation as a public health crisis. They see it as a business opportunity," Stewart told Truthout.

Bottled Water is Big and Getting Bigger

Bottled water is big business. According to the International Bottled Water Association, the leading industry lobbying group, in 2013, Americans drank more than 10 billion gallons of bottled water, generating $12.3 billion in revenue for beverage companies. This amount was more than double the revenue recorded in 2000. Americans spent $18.82 billion in 2014 purchasing what comes, basically free, out of the tap.

Internationally, bottled water consumption is estimated to have neared 70.4 billion gallons in 2013, according to data from the latest edition of Beverage Marketing's report The Global Bottled Water Market. Consumption increased six percent in one year and is projected to grow. In fact, the International Bottled Water Association predicts the largest growth in bottled water to be in poor countries, where access to safe and clean water is not necessarily a given and public water infrastructure is severely underfunded.

Environmental impacts of bottled water are well documented. Millions of barrels of oil are used each year to produce the plastic containers and Americans alone throw away more than 60 million plastic bottles, which end up in landfills, each day. In addition, for every liter of bottled water produced, it takes three liters of water to produce it.

Among the companies that sell bottled water, Nestle is the biggest, owning 52 different brands of bottled water internationally and controlling 40 water extraction sources in North America alone. The company, which owns brands such as Arrowhead, Deer Park, Poland Springs and Ice Mountain, pumps billions of gallons of water out of the ground each year and pays very little for actual water besides its leases to private landowners. Then it charges up to 2,000 times more for that water than it would cost just to turn on the tap. The company couples its low overhead with highly sophisticated marketing and public relations campaigns to convince people that bottled water is safer and better tasting than tap water. Meanwhile, the company uses names and images that suggest the water is from a pure, untouched mountain spring, when in many cases it comes directly from a municipal water source and its sales and profits keep going up.

Stewart, who monitors Nestle's activities nationwide, finds that its playbook is the same in every community they target for industrial water extraction.

“They identify small, rural communities, many times economically depressed, that they think they can roll over and who they think might be susceptible to promises of jobs and tax revenue," he said.

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Communities are Fighting Back and Winning

However, in many parts of the country, targeted communities are resisting domination by Nestle. In McCloud, California, town leaders signed a 50-year agreement in which Nestle would pay one sixty-fourth of a cent for a gallon of water and then turn around and sell it for more than $1 per gallon. Residents fought a six-year battle to have that agreement thrown out and eventually won in 2009.

Residents of Wacissa, Florida, have also successfully fended off the company with a sustained grassroots organizing effort, along with passing a local ordinance that would require any bottling operation to be approved by four out of the five county commissioners.

In California, which is experiencing severe drought, an investigation by The Desert Sun found that Nestle has been drawing water from the San Bernardino National Forest—36 million gallons last year alone—using a permit that expired in 1988. The Desert Sun also found that the company was only charged an annual permit fee of $524.

The Story of Stuff and the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Forest Service in October 2015, making the argument that the agency has violated the law by allowing Nestle to take water without a valid permit and that their water removal threatens sensitive habitat. In response to the lawsuit, San Bernardino National Forest is proposing to issue Nestle a five-year permit after conducting an environmental analysis of the operations and its effects on the forest. Nestle is allowed to keep operating during the study, which could take up to two years to complete. The groups are moving forward with the litigation.

Meanwhile, 1,000 miles north of San Bernardino National Forest, the residents of Cascade Locks, Oregon, are trying to stop Nestle from opening its first bottling plant in the Northwest. They have organized a ballot measure to put in front of voters this May, which, if it passes, will prohibit bottled water operations in Hood River County.

Stiv Wilson, director of campaigns from The Story of Stuff—a nonprofit organization that coalesced around a 20-minute movie about the way we produce and throw away all of the material objects in our lives—is working to help Cascade Locks activists and communities all over connect the dots and build solidarity.

“No community needs to start at square one," Wilson said. “We know how to fight back and we know how Nestle works."

The communities who are in Nestle's sights are not only working to protect their local watersheds, but also are on the front lines of the ideological battle of what water is. Is it a commodity to be sold on the global marketplace or a public good that all humans have a right to?

“Privatizing and bottling water isn't a solution for securing access to clean water," Wilson said. “Clean water is a human right."

Wilson finds that Nestle understands what governments seem not to—that clean and accessible water is the most important resource in the world. They are trying to secure the rights to it, one small, rural community at a time.

The Water Wars in Kunkletown

Back in Kunkletown, residents have organized and fought back hard against Nestle's attempts to move in. And, from all accounts, they are winning.

Once they realized what was happening, the residents formed an informal community group to fight Nestle and five of those residents retained a lawyer. On Dec. 17, 2015, Diehl and four others filed a lawsuit against the Eldred Township Board of Supervisors alleging the area's zoning rules were surreptitiously and unlawfully changed. In January 2016, 120 residents and one business submitted a petition to intervene on behalf of the five plaintiffs, solidifying community support of their actions.

On Feb. 18, the Eldred Township Planning Commission, which serves in an advisory role to the zoning board, held a public meeting, with Nestle representatives and attorneys in attendance to present on the project and answer questions. During the four-hour, often contentious meeting, people stood up and directly challenged Nestle and their actions leading up to that moment.

“I go door-to-door in this community, 98 percent of the people are against it. Most of the people in this community are dead set against it," Desiree Jaeckle said. “Why didn't you find that out before you decided to extract your water?"

In March 2016, the planning commission voted unanimously to recommend that the Eldred Township zoning board outright deny Nestle's application. In a 24-page letter to the zoning board, the commission stated:

The eleventh hour amendment to the 2014 Eldred Township Zoning Ordinance that changed water extraction from an industry use to a manufacturing, light use was not the result of proper planning, but instead the efforts of a few, limited interested parties.

Among the litany of reasons for which the commission recommended denial, it cited the fact that Nestle's test wells diminished the flow of a nearby stream by 12 percent and resulted in a drop of two wells on adjacent properties. It also emphasized the impact of the public opposition to the project. The commission's document stated:

It should be initially noted that public comment at the planning commission's public meetings on Nestle's application was unanimously, and vociferously, in opposition to the Project, and its expected negative impact on current and future uses in the Township and the desirability of residing and doing business in the Township. The planning commission places great weight [on] the public comment that was received, and believes it is representative of general public sentiment in the Township on the Project.

The zoning board has yet to make a decision on whether to grant Nestle a permit and is going through the process of interviewing experts but locals are hopeful that it will make the right decision and if it doesn't, they are certain their legal challenge will succeed.

“We have wonderful water here and we will protect it. Nestle is trying to break us," Diehl told Truthout. “But I'm absolutely optimistic that we'll win."

Alexis Bonogofsky is a fourth generation Montanan, rancher and anti-coal organizer who was featured in the recent climate change documentary This Changes Everything. In 2014, she was awarded a Cultural Freedom Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. Follow Alexis on Twitter: @abonogofsky.

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Brazilians living in The Netherlands organized a demonstration in solidarity with rainforest protectors and against the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro on Sept. 1 in The Hague, Netherlands. Romy Arroyo Fernandez / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Tara Smith

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.

Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.

Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.

From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.

Historical Precedent

Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.

Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.

Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?

Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.

When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.

The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.

The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.

But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.

Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.

This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaking on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2018. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Natalie Hanman

Why are you publishing this book now?

I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.

The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?

When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.

What's stopping the left doing this?

In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.

That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.

This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.

One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?

When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?

I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.

This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.

In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?

In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.

Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...

Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.

Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?

I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?

Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?

It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?

One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.

You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?

I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.

This story was originally published by The Guardian, and is republished here as part of the Covering Climate Now partnership to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis.

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