This original article by Robert Sandford appeared in the The Toronto Star here
As leaders from the U.S. and Canada recently gathered in Toronto for the 2016 Great Lakes Public Forum, the backdrop was an ongoing controversy between the community of Guelph and the Nestlé water bottling plant, which has thrown the issue of water access and availability into high relief.
Some have argued that the frenzy around Nestlé is driven by “a bogus water crisis.” They point out that Canada has more fresh water than any country in the world. A single company isn’t going to push Canadians into water scarcity. That’s true. However, our myth of water abundance very well may.
Researchers have been trying to understand how Canadians think about their water for years. RBC’s ninth annual Canadian Water Attitudes Study, which came out this spring, offers some insight. It found Canadians are only slightly more concerned about the security of our fresh water resources today than they were almost a decade ago. By in large, Canadians still subscribe to the dangerous myth of our inexhaustible water wealth. We will not make progress in protecting our water until public attitudes change.
Most Canadians cannot tell you where their tap water comes from; and it is only in the past two years Canadians have begun to recognize the impacts climate change have on our fresh water resources. Despite a summer of persistent drought in heavily populated regions, such as southern Ontario, the survey makes it clear Canadians, as a whole, still don’t understand that we have entered a new normal. The only thing we can reasonably predict about the meteorological impacts on our fresh water is that they are bound to become increasingly less predictable.
This uncertainty is the context in which we need to understand the highly publicized dispute over the re-licensing of a Nestlé water bottling plant near Guelph, Ont.
Here are the facts: bottled water purveyors buy public water and then sell that water back to the public at rates 3,000 to 5,000 times higher than what they paid for that water. In addition, the effects of plastic in the environment and the cost of disposal bottles are passed on to the public. Add to this the carbon footprint and environmental effects of trucking vast volumes of water needlessly to places where billions are spent to ensure universal access to reliably clean water, and the lucrative sale of bottled water is increasingly being seen as a triumph of marketing over common sense.
Critics of the public outcry over Nestlé’s water license are right to point out that southern Ontario has a lot of water in relative terms. However, only 6.5 per cent of the water available is renewed annually through the hydrological cycle and that percentage is subject to growing variability.
But water scarcity isn’t just about how much water is available, it’s also about how the available water is being used. Ontarians use water for so many things simultaneously — from agriculture, to industry, to quenching the thirst of a growing urban population — that it is actually difficult to sustain the water levels suitable for navigation in the Great Lakes.
The most important matter, however, is that hydro-meteorological conditions are changing in ways that are already affecting both surface water flows and groundwater availability. Guelph is one of the largest cities in Canada that relies on groundwater sources for drinking water. Not enough is known about groundwater anywhere in Canada to predict what will happen to supply as temperatures continue to increase. With a projected increase in population of 46 per cent by 2041, it appears the City of Guelph may be on a very real collision course between growing water demand and dwindling supply.
The controversy over the re-licensing of the bottled water plant also puts into relief the jurisdictional territoriality that exists when it comes to matters of water commodification. Despite claims by the Government of Ontario to the contrary, this dispute highlights the absence of effective integrated water basin scale approaches to water management. Solutions may include, as Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn rightly suggests, putting an actual price on our water for all users aligned with its value.
That needs to happen, and Canadians need to demand it. But policy progress will only occur if and when Canadians shed our unfounded and unshakable confidence in Canada’s water wealth. We are getting there, slowly. RBC’s 2016 study found the majority of Canadians cite climate change as the greatest risk to Canada’s water. In fact, that concern has tripled since 2010.
However, it also found most Canadians do not feel personally at risk. The vast majority of Ontarians, for example, do not believe they live in a drought prone area and that 80 per cent have little or no concern about droughts. Will this summer’s record-setting heat and dryness, exacerbating clashes between communities and corporations over water, be the wake-up call we need? Let’s hope so. Because if we delay action until Canada is in the midst of a full-fledged water crisis, it will be too late.
Robert Sandford is the EPCOR Chair for Water & Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment & Health, which is located on the campus of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
Des résidents d’Elora dans la région de Guelph s’opposent à ce que Nestlé achète une usine locale et obtienne un permis pour exploiter un puits. Nestlé souhaite l’utiliser pour alimenter son usine d’embouteillage à une trentaine de kilomètres d’Elora.
Dans cette petite ville idyllique au nord-ouest de Toronto, de nombreux résidents ont leur propre puits. Une source d’eau précieuse, mais limitée, explique Lindsay Boger, qui a déjà vu son puits à sec.
Les résidents craignent l’impact de l’exploitation de Nestlé sur la qualité et la quantité d’eau de la nappe phréatique. Selon eux, les autorités n’ont pas toutes les données en main pour pourvoir évaluer l’impact que pourrait avoir un tel projet.
Pour le moment, Nestlé a déposé une offre conditionnelle sur le puits. La compagnie réalise des tests pour mieux évaluer le potentiel de la source. Elle ajoute que la question de la durabilité la préoccupe tout autant que les résidents.
Nestlé attend la permission du gouvernement provincial pour pouvoir aller de l’avant avec des tests de pompage sur une période de 30 jours, afin d’avoir une meilleure idée de la durabilité du puits. La compagnie espère obtenir le permis pour commencer les essais dans les prochains mois.
Avec un reportage de Sara-Christine Gemson