Opinion » Pique'n Yer Interest

Drip-drip of water misuse



An observant and cynical circus owner once remarked: "There's a sucker born every minute." Whenever this lousy perspective is stated it usually means there is also another kind of sucker doing "business" with them, sucking whatever they can out of the situation.

There is news out of the town of Hope that the world's largest food company, Swiss giant Nestlé, through its subsidiary Nestlé Waters Canada, takes 265 million litres of fresh water each year from local supplies and sells it back to us in plastic bottles.

However you may feel about bottled water is one thing; the real story from where I'm standing is that thanks to British Columbia's preposterously ancient water regulations, Nestlé doesn't pay a blessed cent to either Hope or the province for taking this valuable resource. Sure, 75 people are employed and that's great, someone has to take the water out after all, but one presumes the profits of the parent company subsumes their salaries in a couple of hours, if that.

Nestlé's water flows from the Fraser Valley town's own aquifer — which also supplies potable water to the community of 6,000. Nestlé bottles their millions of litres and sells them at profit, presumably big profit, to Western Canadians. You can see their brand on Sea to Sky grocery shelves sold at around $1 a bottle.

The company doesn't even need a permit to do this and any monitoring and reporting carried out is voluntary.

Our government, and by extension the rest of us, are suckers for allowing the century-old provincial Water Act (1909) to make possible this enrichment of a billion-dollar multinational corporation. Changes to groundwater regulations in the form of a new Water Sustainability Act are proposed for the legislature in 2014, but let's save the confetti for when it is actually tabled and passed.

Nestlé's isn't the only company to use this loophole. The Province newspaper reports that Mountain Spring Water and Whistler Water also divert groundwater in British Columbia, but they would not tell the paper how much water is taken and sold by the companies per annum.

That this situation is allowed to exist in a province where so many of its residents live under regular boil-water advisories is disturbing. The optics are positively myopic.

When contacted, a spokesperson for Whistler Water sent Pique the following email: "Whistler Water continues to be supportive of the B.C. government's efforts to modernize the Water Act and monitor and track usage of this valuable natural resource."

It's commendable, since once the government does get their acts together on this — as surely they must. They will, surely. Right?  — it will likely eat into the profits of companies like Whistler Water, though probably not enough to place the company in any kind of danger.

The point is that such resource use needs to be defined and it is a shocking lapse in a government that is always banging on about our fabulous, valuable, renewable resources.

Legally, it's not stealing, whatever emotions of the public are triggered in terms of their sense of fairness in business conduct and resources use. It is a scandal, though, and a business model for No Shame, Unlimited. There are many Canadian examples of profit abuse.

And guess what? Nestlé is currently involved in a similar story in Guelph, Ontario. There, the corporation takes water from an underground well, set up, unlike in B.C. with a five-year license. It then sells their product to the public.

Nestlé requested a renewal of the license, which was granted, but restrictions on the amount of water sometimes taken were issued in the form of a drought clause. Nestlé would merely have to reduce water intake during droughts. The Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal struck down the deal between Nestlé and the Ontario government.

The corporation does not like this and is moving to protect its interests. A date for an environmental hearing ordered by the tribunal has not yet been set.

The only way to change what's unfair is to kick up a fuss and shine a light on it, as the Council of Canadians tries to do through its campaign to ensure that water be treated in this country like a public trust.

There is a real danger of the opposite happening with ongoing examples around the world. In the coming decades, awareness of how resources like water are used will become more crucial. Never take it for granted in the way the current B.C. legislation seems to allow.

As we shoot past seven billion people on this planet to eight, nine, 10 billion — how we manage what is arguably the most crucial of resources will become ever more important. "Whose management and for whom?" should be the question.

Our lawmakers need to put public good front and centre, and not employ a drip-drip effect that erodes our control over water by deliberately giving away that control.

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