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Nestlé Chairman Peter Brabeck Says We Don't Have a Right to Water, Believes We Do Have a Right to Water and Everyone's Confused. (Video)

04/25/2013 12:20 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2013
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The Internet (almost) exploded this week when Americans Against the Tea Party linked to a video with the title: "Nestlé Chairman: Water Not a Right, Should Be Given a 'Market Value' and Privatized." In it, Nestlé Chairman and former CEO Peter Brabeck suggests that declaring water a right is 'extreme' and asserts that water is a foodstuff best valued and distributed by the free market.

Video below -- starts about at 2:00 mark.

The rhetoric is admittedly absurd. But before we rip out our hair in a fit of #OccupyNestlé rage, let's talk back-story.

The five-minute clip is part of a larger video about food security filmed in 2005. Every few months it surfaces, triggering a firestorm of criticism. This time, it even trended on Twitter.

People were shocked at the inhumanity of Brabeck's statement, and rightly so. Taken at face value, the video appears to pit the world's largest seller of bottled water against the 783 million people struggling to access what little water they need to survive. That's after allegations and rebuttals regarding Nestlé's role in restricting water access to several poor communities.

The fact remains: humans have a right to clean water.
Apart from making good moral sense, the right to water is recognized by the United Nations and protected by several treaties and national constitutions.

But wait! Brabeck and Nestlé have since recognized the right to water. Nestlé's corporate policy asserts "the right of all people to have access to clean water to meet their basic human needs..." Brabeck states his position on his blog:

Let me be very clear about this again here on the blog, because I think the video clip, which took my views out of context, isn't clear about the point I was trying to make. The water you need for survival is a human right, and must be made available to everyone, wherever they are, even if they cannot afford to pay for it.

Perhaps the question was settled sometime between 2005 and the present. Perhaps Brabeck's original comments were in fact desperately out of context. Perhaps we're just meant to feel better. Whatever the case, most of us are left scratching our heads, wondering what having a 'right to water' really means.

While we're on the subject, it might be helpful to run through a few clarifications regarding one of our most important human rights -- both for Mr. Brabeck's sake and for ourselves.

1. The right to water takes precedence.

The right to water entitles every person to sufficient, safe, acceptable, accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use. It establishes a relationship between states and their citizens. States must respect the right to water, protect water access from interference and continually improve access for those lacking it.

Human rights have priority, meaning that water -- all water -- is first a human right, and second a resource to be used for development in line with our obligation to live sustainably.

2. The right to water means more than survival.

The human right to water protects both the water we need to survive and the water we need to live in dignity. There's an important distinction between the two.

The World Health Organization estimates that human beings need between 25-50 liters of water a day to maintain basic health and hygiene. This is called our Basic Water Requirement . But imagine living on list 25 liters of water a day and maintaining your dignity. For many of us, this would be difficult.

States have an obligation to protect access to the water a person needs to survive (25-50 liters), while at the same time working to ensure that all persons have access to the amount of water they need to thrive.

3. The market has both a role and a responsibility.

The market has an important role to play in water management. That role is primarily a responsibility on the part of businesses to respect access to water in their plans and processes. Beyond that, markets should price goods in a way that recognizes the value of the water used to create them. Every product has a 'water footprint' that gives it a very real cost.

Private firms may also have a role to play in public water delivery, but they will never be able to cost-effectively meet the needs of those who cannot pay market rates. That's the government's job (with the help of aid, if needed).

4. Americans need a new attitude.

Mr. Brabeck insists that by assigning water a price, we'll become more aware of just how precious it really is. Like him or not, he's right to point out how desperately out of touch we've become.

In a survey of American 'Water Attitudes' taken by the firm Xylem last year, 67 percent of Americans admitted that they take water access for granted. In fact, half of us estimate our daily water use at around 50 gallons (227.3 liters), when it's double that number or more. Americans have a right to water like anyone else, but it's a right we neither appreciate nor understand.

One question remains after this week's debate: How can we be so angered by the positions of our business leaders when we seem so unaware of water's importance in our own lives?

Someone make a video about that.