Nestlé's Thirst for Water

Donna McCaw

Nestlé Waters Canada, a subsidiary of Swiss based multinational Nestlé S.A., has just applied for a ten- year permit to take water from their site at Aberfoyle near Guelph, Ontario. It also has a permit pending to take water from the possible purchase of the Middlebrook well beside the Grand River, just outside the neighbouring village of Elora.

This is not just a local issue. The water hunters are active worldwide. Look at the Vittel, Perrier, and San Pellegrino containers and you will see that they are now Nestlé brands along with Gerber, “the water specially developed for babies.” They presently have 52 brands of water across the world.

Nestlé has a strong motivation to mine more and more water – with the average price of a half-litre bottle at roughly $1.25, profit margins are enormous. During the last two decades, Nestlé’s bottled water sales in North America have increased tenfold from US $400 million to $4 billion. Water is the new oil and gold.

We need protection for watersheds provincially, federally, and internationally. This extends from the basic permit to take water to international trade policies. Wellington County in Ontario is a microcosm of an international water crisis that is unfolding now.

Too many Canadians think that we have unlimited water, and this is just not the case. Water is fundamental for survival, recreation, industry, and agriculture. Water can sicken entire communities as it did in Walkerton, Ontario in 2000. In a typical month, there are more than a thousand community drinking water advisories in Canada. Water is vulnerable and needs policy protection and public engagement.

Profits Before People

The current permit in Aberfoyle allows Nestlé to take 2,500 litres of water per minute from the Grand River watershed. The application in Elora is for 1.6 million litres per day (1,300 litres per minute.) They would pay the government $3.71 per million litres or under $6 per day for the Elora site, and that can generate millions in profit. Elora citizens pay $2,140 per million litres for their water use, which is also about 1.6 million litres each day. Also in Wellington County, Nestlé’s permit in Hillsburg allows 773 litres a minute or 1.113 million litres per day.

In Hope, BC, they take 265 million litres per year, paying $2.25 per million litres for the permit, even less than in Ontario. They are paying for a permit to take water and not for the water itself because water is not a commodity owned by the governments. If it were owned, it would be governed by trade agreements and open to legal challenges.

Wellington Water Watchers, a non-profit group that acts as a groundwater watchdog, and SaveOurWater, a coalition of concerned Elora area residents, are opposing this looming threat to the local water supply. The population of this area is projected to double in the near future.

There are bottling plants in Aberfoyle, Ontario and Hope, BC. The citizens of Hope through the Water-Wealth Project have opposed the permit there as well.

Wellington Water Watchers and the Council of Canadians have been ringing the alarm bell on commercial water taking for some time. They also oppose consumptive permits that remove water from watersheds. They have declared opposition to the ten-year permit application for Aberfoyle. Maude Barlow, Chair of the Council of Canadians, visited Centre Wellington last October to speak in support of SaveOurWater and the local Council of Canadians group.

We need the political will to say no to consumptive, commercial water bottling, as the water leaves the watershed altogether and generates millions of plastic water bottles that then end up in land fill sites or the oceans. With climate change and bigger populations threatening water sources, this exporting of a natural resource appears to be insane.

The Race to Sell

The two provinces with the weakest protections against commercial water taking are BC and Ontario. Nestlé has access to 75 springs in 40 locations across North America. Local citizens often protest this use of water and battles have been waging for years in some locations, like Cascade Locks, Oregon.

James Etienne of the Grand River Conservation Authority says the area “has been flagged as a longer-term drought concern.” He confirms that, “The main communities – Guelph and Waterloo Region – are all groundwater fed.”

Ontario Minister of Environment and Climate Change Glen Murray has also called for a Tier 3 Water Budgeting study for Centre Wellington because of the risk factors for drought. The Council of Canadians and Wellington Water Watchers challenged Nestlé at the Environment Review Tribunal concerning their refusal to agree to stop pumping in times of drought at the Hillsburg site. Nestlé has continued pumping during drought conditions in California, BC, Florida, and Oregon.

Tim Brown, the chief executive of Nestlé Waters North America, has been quoted saying, “We will always be looking for springs, because water is finite. We’ll always be on the lookout for it, all around the world. And we will never sell a spring.”

At the heart of these conflicts lie fundamental questions about ownership of a decreasing resource. A study of aquifers led by Tom Gleeson of the University of Victoria concluded that they regenerate at about 6 per cent every 50 years. Water takes a great deal of time to replenish if it does at all. It is a finite resource and necessary for life – worldwide shortages are crises for millions of people and animals and crops.

What Do We Do?

Nestlé’s Middlebrook well purchase is conditional on a pump test and data analysis and on the water permit being granted by the provincial Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. The comments on the Ontario Environmental Bill of Rights need to be weighed and considered. First Nations groups have also sought engagement by the government on this site. These take time.

SaveOurWater is asking for a three-year moratorium on new water permits so that the science can be done and legislation can catch up with the reality of commercial water hunters. We have no federal level legislation in place and the provincial legislation is out of date to protect groundwater that is not part of a municipal system.

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Donna McCaw is a long time resident of Elora, a member of saveourwater.ca, and author of It’s Your Time, a book on retirement readiness.

For More Information: wellingtonwaterwatchers.ca and saveourwater.ca. Contact the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, the Honourable Glen Murray (gmurray.mpp.co@liberal.ola.org), and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne (premier@ontario.ca) to add your voice about permits to take water and water security.

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