Monthly Archives: December 2013

Groups Slap Nestle’s Human Rights Assessment as ‘PR Stunt’

Image: Nestle S.A.

Image: Nestle S.A.

Several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are criticizing Nestlé’s recently released human rights impact report as a PR stunt that overlooks the human right to water, among other allegations, reports Caroline Scott-Thomas of

Vevey, Switzerland-based Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, had trumpeted that its report, released just before International Human Rights Day, was the first of its kind from a multinational corporation. It’s called “Talking the Human Rights Walk: Nestlé’s Experience Assessing Human Rights Impacts in its Business Activities.” The company’s partner in the research, the Danish Institute for Human Rights, referred to the report as a “breakthrough.”

According to Nestle, the paper “focuses on actions Nestlé has taken to improve its human rights performance at both country operations and corporate level,” and assesses data from Angola, Colombia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Russia, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.

Certain NGOs see it as little more than window dressing on the company’s reputation. Among charges surfaced in the article: The report is selective, with a limited scope and significant omissions, and that it looks at corporate policy rather than practice. The NGOs concerned are Blue Planet Project,  FIVAS, Food and Water Watch, and Public Services International. Nestlé says it rejects the NGOs’ criticisms.

This is far from the first time Nestlé has come under fire from NGOs and other organizations. Frequently cited as the world’s largest producer of bottled water, it has been criticized for wanting to privatize water (which it denies). The company has gone to court in several places, opposed by groups trying to defend regional groundwater from being taken and sold elsewhere at a profit to others.

To those who see water a human right in a world where hundreds of millions of human don’t have enough of it, the idea of water as a commodity sold for profit by corporations seems wrong.  Several documentary films have tackled the subject, including Tapped,  Bottled Life: The Truth About Nestle’s Business With Water, and Blue Gold: World Water Wars. For the record,  Nestlé Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe has said that he believes water is a human right. But in the recent past, he struck a different tone.

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Filed under Africa, Asia, Human rights, Research, South America, Sustainability, Uncategorized, Water Resources, Water Shortage

Dec. 18, 2013: What’s in Your Water?


Image: U.S. EPA

Today I’m posting a short roundup of international news about substances found in the water.

Hormone-disrupting chemicals found in water at fracking sites

A study of hydraulic fracturing sites in Colorado finds substances that have been linked to infertility, birth defects and cancer. (United States)

Ontario’s Grand River loaded with artificial sweeteners, study finds

It’s so chock full of artificial sweeteners that scientists say the chemicals can be used to track the movement of treated waste in the region’s municipal water supplies. (Canada)

Communication, cooperation key to water issues in Africa and Asia

Despite radically different cultures, climate, geography, and levels of government involvement in improving the lives of its citizens, Ethiopia, India, and China all face similar issues of water sanitation and hygiene. (Africa, Asia)

EPA drills wells to test groundwater contamination

As scientists home in on the source of contamination near Texas’ Donna Reservoir Superfund site, they drilled new wells this week to test the groundwater. (U.S.)

Pollution takes a toll on aquatic life in 150 river stretches

Discharge of untreated water in India has left 150 river stretches across the country too polluted to support any aquatic life. (India)

Judge approves $165 million settlements in Passaic River pollution case

A New Jersey judge has approved a pair of settlements worth $165.4 million to the state from nearly 300 companies, towns and public agencies accused of polluting the Passaic River. (U.S.)

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Filed under Asia, Environment, Law, North America, Pollution, Rivers and Watersheds

Study: Freshwater Shortage Will Double Climate Change’s Impact on Agriculture

Experts expect global warming to have a negative impact on crop yields, but shortages of water for irrigation could make for double the trouble, according to a study published yesterday.

As described in ScienceDaily, “given the present trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions, agricultural models estimate that climate change will directly reduce food production from maize, soybeans, wheat and rice by as much as 43 percent by the end of the 21st century. But hydrological models looking at the effect of warming climate on freshwater supplies project further agricultural losses, due to the reversion of 20 to 60 million hectares of currently irrigated fields back to rain-fed crops.”

The study’s lead author, Joshua Elliot, said the analysis is the first of its kind to feature an in-depth comparison of agricultural and hydrological models, which resulted in dramatically different results from other research.

“It’s a huge effect, and an effect that’s basically on the same order of magnitude as the direct effect of climate change,” Elliott, a research scientist with the Computation Institute’s Center for Robust Decision Making on Climate and Energy Policy (RDCEP), Argonne National Laboratory, is quoted as saying. “So the effect of limited irrigation availability in some regions could end up doubling the effect of climate change.”

The “good” news, if any, is that some areas will most likely see more precipitation, which could mitigate some of the effects of shortages, the study says.

The study, entitled “Constraints and potentials of future irrigation water availability on agricultural production under climate change” and conducted under the auspices of the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project, as part of the Inter-Sectoral Impacts Model Intercomparison Project, was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Filed under Agriculture, Climate Change, Environment, Research

Unchecked Emissions Will Drain Water Resources, Warns Leaked UN Report

Photo: MarkDhawn

Photo: MarkDhawn

The Hindu newspaper of India says that a United Nations report leaked online warns of dire consequences for freshwater resources if greenhouse gases remain unchecked.

The report is reportedly a final draft by the Working Group II of the UN Intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC), sent to all governments for comment before being finalized and released.

“In response to on-going climate change, terrestrial and marine species have shifted their ranges, seasonal activities, migration patterns, and abundance, have demonstrated altered species,” notes the report’s summary, adding that  developing countries, especially, are vulnerable to damaging climatic events (e.g., heat waves, droughts, floods and wildfires).

Regarding freshwater availability, the summary warns:

“Climate change will reduce renewable surface water and groundwater resources significantly in most dry subtropical regions, exacerbating competition for water among sectors. Each degree of warming is projected to decrease renewable water resources by at least 20% for an additional 7% of the global population.”

As the report notes, dried-up water sources will hurt crop yields even as demand surges with population growth.

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Filed under Climate Change, Environment, Research, United Nations, Water Shortage

Water Crisis Facts from International Sources Now Available

In the past day, this blog saw its new Water Resources page come online, and now it’s joined by another informative page that will be updated on a regular basis: Water Facts. Like the resources page, it’s a quick-reference guide. It gives a sense of urgent issues related to water, such as the number of people worldwide whose lack of it could be life-threatening, as well as less-dire, yet nonetheless interesting, facts (wait, it takes how many gallons of water to produce one hamburger?!)

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Filed under Agriculture, Blog Changes and Updates, Environment, Human rights, Research, Water Resources, Water Shortage

Water, Water Everywhere: New Resources Updates

At the Waterline is still a new blog, with fresh information pages still being added. The Water Resources page doesn’t say “coming soon” anymore — it has actual resources! It’s a list, in alphabetical order, of agencies and media sources concerned with water issues. It’s a work in progress, so be sure to check on it from time to time.  Go there.

A Water Facts page is still, ahem, “coming soon.”

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Filed under Agriculture, Blog Changes and Updates, Climate Change, Environment, Groundwater, NGOs, Oceans, Research, Rivers and Watersheds, Sustainability, United Nations, Water Resources

Upcoming EPA Study Finds Lots of Drugs in U.S. Drinking Water


Excuse me, my fellow American, but your drugs are in my tap water. And my drugs are in yours. The New Republic published an in-depth story today detailing the findings of major upcoming study: There are more pharmaceuticals in American tap water than drug companies thought possible. The estimates drug makers are required to make about their products’ environmental impact have been off the mark, at least in some cases, apparently.

Researchers have been looking at the issue for about 10 years. It’s not news that the drugs flushed down people’s toilets have an impact on aquatic life. For example, trace amounts of hormonal drugs mess with frog and fish reproduction, and even gender characteristics. But this study, conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and slated for January release in the journal Environmental Pollution, paints a clearer picture.

The study, the largest of its kind ever conducted, shows surprisingly high levels of a surprisingly wide range of drugs. It tested water from 50 large waste-water treatment plants for 56 prescription and over-the-counter drugs. It found at least 25 drugs in more than half of the samples. The leading drug class? Blood pressure medications.

Unfortunately, key questions about the situation remain unanswered so far, as the New Republic article indicates. Namely, what are the drugs doing to human health and ecosystems? What further testing and new regulatory conditions need to be put in place, and by whom? Is it feasible to remove the drugs? It’s all very murky, but the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration are working on additional studies.

Image: PD-US (public domain).

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Filed under Environment, North America, Research, Wastewater Treatment

Drying Up: 11 U.S. Cities May Run Out of Water by Midcentury

In case you missed it: The Huffington Post reported last week on the water woes of 11 U.S. cities that could run out water by around 2050 — including some that might be surprising to you. Drawing on recent reports from NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the Columbia University Water Center, and quoting some of the authors,  HuffPo’s Matt Ferner pointed out that water shortage issues could impact much more of the U.S. during the same time frame. This list simply covers 11 major cities, in order by population below.

The cities:

11. Salt Lake City, Utah

10. Lincoln, Neb.

9. Cleveland, Ohio

8. Miami, Fla.

7. Atlanta, Georgia

6. Washington, D.C.

5. El Paso, Texas

4. San Antonio, Texas

3. San Francisco Bay Area, Calif.

2. Houston, Texas

1. Los Angeles, Calif.

Read the full story, with links to the research materials.

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Filed under Environment, North America, Research, Water Shortage

The Intersection of Environmental Issues and Human Rights


The Future of Human Rights Forum, based in Geneva, Switzerland, marked International Human Rights Day, aka the 65th anniversary of the UN General Counsel’s adoption of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with a special event: its inaugural forum. The event is meant to bring together various experts, civil society organizations, journalists and members of the public to discuss innovation in response to issues of concern regarding human rights.

As a Geneva-based journalist learning about water and reIated environmental concerns, I attended the forum’s opening remarks and this morning’s discussion, entitled “Placing the Environment on the Human Rights Agenda.” It was interesting to hear the first speaker of the day drop a tantalizing tidbit in anticipation of the panel. John Pace, former head of the Research and Right to Development Branch of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, referred to the relationship between environmental issues and human rights as “a bit of a hot potato for some of us.”

Listening to the panel discussion that followed, I could understand why the topic is controversial, and why it stands to remain so for some time. There is a lot of history behind human rights development and documentation, and finding the best ways to include environmental issues will be tricky. How central can environmental issues be to human rights in general? How do experts get the language right, when modifying documentation, to ensure clarity? Can the the concept of “ecocide” as a crime gain urgency behind a public mandate and become part of the law in more countries?

The panelists: moderator Nicola Spafford Furey, vice president of Earth Focus Foundation; Polly Higgins, chairwoman, Eradicating Ecocide Global Initiative; Gonzalo Ovideo, senior advisor for social policy, International Union for Conservation of Nature; Jorge Vinuales, Harold Samuel Professor of Law and Environmental Policy at the University of Cambridge.

This blog is focused on water, which was not a main topic of the discussion, but it was used as an example that gives a sense of the scope of some of the issues discussed regarding the overlap of environment and human rights. Oviedo, echoed by Vinuales, mentioned two schools of thought: (1) people who want to protect humans from negative environmental impacts, such as toxic waste, and (2) people focused primarily on procedural environmental rights developed in the past 20 years (e.g., through the Rio Conventions).

“Something in the middle is missing,” Oviedo continued. “I think what is missing is a stronger, better way of understanding the way in which the environment is really at the bottom, is the basis of, human rights. Think of the right to water. Water comes from the function of ecosystems. If the ecosystems that ensure the cycle of water are lost, what are we going to do with the right to water? I feel we have the tools at hand today to make the environmental agenda stronger. We just have to use [them] in a more creative way.”

The focus of much of the discussion, as well as audience questions, was on Higgins’ area of expertise, the Eradicating Ecocide Environmental Initiative. It’s an intriguing idea, that destruction of ecosystems could become an international crime. In fact, it’s on the books in 10 countries, Higgins said. The term itself, first coined in a 1972 research paper, still seems little-known, but could be poised for greater fame. Read more about its history, existing laws, and more on the initiative website.

Image: The Future of Human Rights Forum

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Filed under Environment, Events, Human rights, Law, United Nations

Study Describes Vast Reserves of Water Under Ocean Floors


Image: David Snow

On the very day I was beginning to put together this blog, Dec. 5, the journal Nature published a new study by a group of Australian researchers that may seem to negate any need for another blog about the looming global water crisis.

The study, Offshore fresh groundwater reserves as a global phenomenon, finds that fresh and brackish water deposits under oceans are much more common, and much more vast, than previously thought.  The research team estimates that the reserves amount to 120,000 cubic miles of water.

“The volume of this water resource is a hundred times greater than the amount we’ve extracted from the Earth’s sub-surface in the past century since 1900,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Vincent Post, said in a statement. He and his team are at of the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training and the School of the Environment at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia.

Post explained that the oceans are at much higher surface levels today than they were 20,000 years ago, when polar ice caps began to melt, adding water volume over time. What was once ground has aquifers filled with groundwater underneath. These aquifers, though underneath large bodies of salt water, are otherwise similar to the ones under dry land that are being depleted all over the world.

So, if there’s so much more water out there than we thought, why should I continue to study it as a precious and finite resource that could cause more global conflict than oil in the coming decades? Because of what lies between these massive reserves of water and their ability to sustain people and communities: complex infrastructure and high costs. As Post and his team point out, the water will have to be pumped from ocean platforms or facilities on nearby dry land. That, plus the need for desalination, make getting the water where it’s needed, in a drinkable state, a tall order. On the plus side, as the study indicates, the water is not as salty as seawater, so the desalination is that much less energy-intensive.

After all is said and done, however, this massive “new” resource is still finite. As Post noted, aquifers under oceans won’t be refilled with new groundwater until the oceans recede again, “which is not likely to happen for a very long time.” (Possibly a bit of understatement, that.)

Read more about the study and its implications.

UPDATE: Offshore fresh water aquifers: Which law will apply? – International Water Law Project Blog

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Filed under Desalination, Groundwater, Oceans, Research, Technology, Water Shortage