A human can survive without food for as long as forty days. Without water however, s/he will be dead within three, four days at the most.

Nestle CEO Peter Brabeck – currently one of the most hated people in the world – is acutely aware of this. To be fair, Brabeck did not literally say that humans have no right to water. What he did say (translated from German) is

“Water is…the most important raw material we have…it is a question of whether we should privatize the normal water supply for the population…the one opinion, which I think is extreme, is represented by the NGOs [non-governmental organizations, i.e., environmental groups and human rights organizations] who bang on about declaring water a public right. That means that as a human being, you should have a right to water… the other view says that water is a foodstuff like any other…and should have a market value. Personally, I believe it is better to give foodstuff a value.”

In other words, humans have no right to water unless they can pay the market price for it – controlled and manipulated by corporations like Nestle.

How do you put a value on human life, Herr Brabeck?

They are certainly trying. In California, which has been in a state of drought for years, residents (who use less than 10% of the state’s water) are being subject to draconian restrictions,. while mega corporation Nestle has virtual carte blanche to take as much water as it can. The Swiss-based corporate vampire is sucking away H2O at a rate of 80 million gallons annually from the Sacramento Valley alone. Their cost:  a little over .07c per gallon. This public resource is then put into toxic plastic bottles (not even filtered beyond the same treatment given to residential tap water) and sells it for around $3.39 a gallon – a markup of well over 4800%.

Quite a handsome little profit from the greatest scam ever perpetrated on humanity.

Recently, there has been increasing pushback. A water coalition in Sacramento has been calling on the municipal government to force Nestle to pay a commercial rate and tax its profits. Meanwhile,  600 miles to the north, another front in the water war has opened – and the battle is taking on an interesting form.

Cascade Locks, Oregon is a former logging town with an unemployment rate of  18%.  The community is arguably hurting; the high school was recently closed due to a lack of funding. Seeing yet another opportunity for theft, Nestle came to town and proposed a swap: public water rights in exchange for a bottling plant that would provide all of fifty jobs – but also double the community’s property tax revenue . (This, incidentally, is one of Peter Brabeck’s arguments for locking up the world’s water supply under corporate, profit-driven control: it would create employment.)  The plant would bottle 100 million gallons every year, straight from nearby Oxbow Springs. Although this water is chemically no different from that drawn from the public well, the name “Oxbow Springs”  has a certain commercial appeal.

There’s more to the story, however.

Nestle started its attempted takeover in 2008, and has had to face legal challenges as well as protests from the public every step of the way.  According to local activist Audie Fuller, Oxbow Springs comes from snow melt off of nearby Mount Hood – and in turn, feeds Herman Creek as well as a hatchery managed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).  Under the proposed deal, Nestle would trade its part of its city well water for the Oxbox Springs water. “The salmon they are raising are 2 different threatened species who need cold water [40-60 degrees Fahrenheit] as well as the salmon who use Herman creek as a cold water refuge in the summer, when the Columbia warms up,” she says. “If [the deal] does go through, they will replace the hatchery and the water in Herman creek with municipal water from the city…this water is treated and too warm for salmon to live [in].”

Aside from this, the new plant would create traffic problems, as 200 trucks would be passing through the town on a daily basis. “The roads in Cascade Locks can’t handle that amount of traffic,” Ms. Fuller adds.

It begs the question of how road maintenance will be paid for, or how the sediments left behind by Nestle’s operations will be cleaned up. According to Julia DeGraw of Food and Water Watch, this is exactly how Nestle operates. “They will pick a place with spring water resources that needs jobs, then they’ll overpromise on jobs, overestimate their economic impact and underestimate their environmental impact,”  she told The Oregonian.

In the meantime, city politicians were more than happy to climb into bed with Nestle. Acting on Nestle’s instructions, the City Council voted in January to seek approval from the Oregon Water Resources Department for the company to trade part of its well water for the spring water.  In April, City Administrator Gordon Zimmerman, a champion for Nestle (or whore, depending on which side you’re on) filed paperwork with the ODFW (which has agreed to the water swap, despite the danger to the salmon) in order to initiate the transfer of water rights.

Meanwhile, citizens have been mobilizing – including Food and Water Watch, Earth First and others. Protests have been taking place in nearby Portland as well. Among those protesters is a group of thespians who are doing a concert tour of a recent musical in order to highlight the issue.

The title of the musical is Urinetown, a dark comedy that ran on Broadway for a total of 690 performances and won three Tony Awards. The story satirizes numerous issues that include corporate mismanagement and misconduct as well as municipal politics – and even the capitalist system itself. Portland-based performer and activist Tara Hershberger decided that a scaled-down traveling production of the piece was an excellent way to draw greater attention to Nestle’s agenda.

“I came up with the idea while [on] a recent hike to Oxbow Springs,” Ms. Hershberger says.  The original plan was to perform the piece in Cascade Locks itself, but the company of players will be starting in Portland in order to raise awareness about water privatization in general – and Nestle in particular. Ms. Hershberger, who has appeared in an earlier production, says that  “[Urinetown’s] absurdity showcases a similar situation with catchy tunes and hilarious parody…this abridged script focuses on the aspects of the show that most resemble our message; that corporations should never control public resources.”

The production will be performed as a “concert reading” at a number of different venues and rallies in the Portland area throughout the summer with a rotating cast.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.