“Water, water, everywhere, And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.”
(The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – Samuel Taylor Coleridge).
By Ray Rivers
October 17th, 2016
Take Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, something which the devastating hurricane Matthew just did. And what sad irony! Because only days before, environment officials from these two provinces walked out of a meeting on climate change. They were protesting the federal announcement of a national carbon tax, refusing to accept the easiest path for reducing climate changing emissions. So when NS and NL got hit by flooding, an apparent consequence of global warming, their walk-out became more like myopia or stupidity than irony.
In Ontario we are having a very different conversation about water. Nestlé S.A, the world’s largest food and drink company is a massive transnational corporation with 447 factories, operating in 194 countries and employing over three hundred thousand. Already the second largest global water bottling company, with extensive operations near Guelph, it has just won access to another aquifer out bidding a small municipality near Elora.
In total, 1.4 trillion litres of water are extracted from ground water sources in Ontario every day. But only a fraction is returned into all the aquifers, especially the water from those plastic bottles. Between 2011 and 2015 the aquifer at Nestlé’s bottling plant in Aberfoyle dropped by 1.5 metres. And their continued pumping has become a major issue for a growing City of Guelph, which also relies on that aquifer for its water. And now the emerging sprawl community of Middlebrook near Elora, has lost its water source to the same corporation which could be allowed to pump as much as 1,300 litres per minute from the 110 meter deep artisan well.
I’m not one of those generally opposed to the bottled water industry. Water coolers, which have been around forever, provide a healthy alternative to caffeine, in addition to offering a location for office gossip. And there are places where clean water only comes in bottles, as anyone who has travelled to Asia, Africa or Latin America will attest. But most of the water from the Nestlé bottling works near Guelph, or in Hope B.C. which extracts 265 million litres a day, goes into the North American market. And the water quality here is arguably better coming out of the tap than the bottle.
In part the argument is about money. The company pays just $3.71 per million litres in addition to a renewable five-year permit fee of $75. For that they are entitled to take 3.6 million litres per day. That costs the company less than $15 a day for water which sells for $2.00 or more per 500 ml bottle at the airport.
The bottling process itself can use three times the water that actually goes into the bottle. And the energy needed just to manufacture enough bottles for America’s consumption is the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil, enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year. Americans use about 50 billion water bottles a year, the world’s largest users, but only 23 percent of these are recycled. The balance, the equivalent of $1 billion in plastic alone, goes into land-fills, ends up as litter on the land or becomes part of the huge problem of plastic waste in our lakes and oceans.
Globally, over half of the water bottles out there are just bottled tap water, but that is not what Nestlé is producing. Using ground water, instead of surface water, say from Lake Ontario, places the discussion closer to what is going on in California. That US state is experiencing its fifth dry year in a row, and ground water has become the last resort for agriculture, in particular. Ontario got its taste of drought this spectacular summer, and it wasn’t the first year water started to get scarce.
So the Premier has opened the tap on limiting water taking by the bottling industry, and on making that industry pay a more reasonable price for the resource. After all, is it fair that Nestlé, gets an almost unlimited supply of our water for next to nothing, when we have been coaxed into investing in low flush toilets and other water conservation practices? And do we really need to keep buying all those wasteful water bottles, when so many reasonable alternatives abound?
Editor’s note: As we went to press earlier today the province released the following statement:
Ontario is taking action to protect the province’s water resources for future generations by proposing a two-year moratorium on new or expanded water takings from groundwater by bottling companies, as well as stricter rules for renewals of existing permits.
Ray Rivers is an economist and author who writes weekly on federal and provincial issues, applying his 25 years of involvement with federal and provincial ministries. Rivers’ involvement in city matters led to his appointment as founding chair of Burlington’s Sustainable Development Committee. He was also a candidate in a past provincial election