Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Nestle vs. Wellington County, Ontario, and the need for a national water policy

While most Canadians acknowledge the importance of clean water to health and livelihood, relatively few are aware of the fact that in our country there is no national strategy to address urgent water issues, or to preserve and protect Canada’s fresh water.
Contamination, shortages, and increasing pressure to export water to the United States highlight the need for a comprehensive national water policy for this country. The Council of Canadians – Canada’s largest citizens organization – has long been campaigning for such a policy to protect Canada’s freshwater from privatization and bulk exports based on the belief that:

  • Canada’s freshwater supply is limited
  • Water is essential for both healthy ecosystems
  • Water is a basic human right and the commodification of water would not guarantee access for all
  • Public water is safer, cleaner, and more affordable

For no one have these concerns become more apparent than for the people of Wellington County, Ontario, where the community is currently embroiled in  a legal battle with Nestle Waters.

Nestle Waters is the world’s largest bottled water company and its largest bottling facility in Canada is located in Wellington County, a municipality in southwestern Ontario.

At present nestle pays $3.71 for every million litres of water it draws out of the local watershed. Once packaged in single-use plastic water bottles, Nestle then sells the water at an enormous profit – nearly $2 million.

Yet somehow Nestle believes it is entitled to an even better deal. Under the permit signed with the municipality, Nestle is required to reduce the amount it draws from the aquifer by between 10 and 20 percent during times of drought. The need for such restrictions was underscored last summer when the residents and farmers in Wellington County experienced one of the worst droughts in over a decade.

Nestle filed an appeal with the Environmental review Tribunal (ERT) to have these drought-based restrictions overturned, and in a stunning decision the Ontario Ministry of the Environment agreed to a settlement which would undermine the conditions for water extraction and could potentially allow Nestle to pump at its maximum rates even during times of drought. Therefore, even if the local community was under water restrictions, Nestle would still be allowed to pump millions of litres of freshwater from the local aquifer for profit.

In an attempt to protect the water rights of the people of Wellington County, the Council of Canadians, in partnership with Wellington Water Watchers – a Guelph-based water advocacy group – and with legal representation by Ecojustice, applied for and was granted official party status to represent the public interest in Nestle’s appeal hearing.

As the Council of Canadians states on its website:

“In many ways, this effort to protect an important aquifer in a small Ontario community is a microcosm of the global fight against corporate ownership of water. There is a growing global movement to declare water as part of the commons; a shared public resource that belongs to all.”

Clearly the Ontario government has put corporate profit before public water rights. It also underscores the need for a comprehensive national strategy to address urgent water issues, and the current lack of leadership at both the provincial and federal levels to conserve and protect Canada's freshwater reserves. This final decision in this case could set an important precedent for recognizing water as a public trust, and granting communities control over their water and how it is used.

To that end, the Council of Canadians needs your help to fund crucial research to support its case, and to cover its legal costs. I urge you to join the fight!

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