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A river runs through the Canadian Rockies.  (Photo: Pavel Krömer/flickr/cc)

Demanding That Nestlé Pay More Is Not Enough

Emma Lui

 by Council of Canadians

There is a lot of public attention on Nestlé and other companies’ water takings in B.C. and a call for them to pay more for the water they withdraw. Former MLA Judi Tyabji recently weighed into the debate raising important points about opening the door to massive sales and turning water into a commodity for sale.

Currently, Nestlé and other companies, including fracking companies who pollute, pay $2.25 for every million litres of groundwater they take.

The B.C. government thinks this is a step forward from not charging for groundwater at all. There has been a public backlash to the very low price of water.

The increased awareness about water takings is important and the rate of $2.25 per million litres is ridiculously low – the lowest across any of the provinces.

But pricing alone is not enough to protect our lakes, rivers and groundwater. Even if Nestlé and other bottled water companies were required to pay $1000 per million litres, their profit markup would still be 1000%.

Calling for Nestlé and other companies to pay more is not going to ensure we have clean drinking water for generations to come. It is not enough to ensure that there is enough water for fish habitats, wildlife, and ecosystems. Nor will it be enough to ensure that we have sufficient water to help cool the planet.

Calling for Nestlé and other companies to pay more is not going to ensure we have clean drinking water for generations to come. As Tyabji warns, calling for the B.C. government – or any government – to charge a fair price is dangerous and can open communities up to trade challenges. The investor-state dispute settlement in  the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) will give Nestlé, headquartered in Switzerland, grounds to sue Canada if B.C. (or Ontario) decides to deny or cancel a water taking permit due drought or other reasons.

Some say, “we have an abundance of water,” “we have water to spare” or “we need these jobs.” But ask people in drought stricken areas - that were once abundant with water - if they now think they have water to spare.

Ask the people in São Paulo, stricken with water shortages. Did you know that Brazil was once one of  the most water rich countries around the world? Ask the people in California who are being forced to reduce their water use while bottled water, fracking and Big Agro companies continue to pump water. Ask the people in Taiwan whose water has been handed over to the global electronics industry.

Drought puts a spotlight on the power dynamics that exist within a community and globally and exacerbates them. It can allocate access to water along race, class, gender and other divisions. Canada and all provinces need a water governance system that addresses these power dynamics.

People often say we need to increase the price because that’s what companies and people know. We are at cross roads where we can teach companies and people a different understanding of water. We can expand our knowledge so that we can relate to water beyond its narrow dollar value.

We also need to expand our imagination to create jobs that do not jeopardize our water sources. People often accept the options presented to them by governments or industries but other options do exist and they can be created.

Focusing on pricing to regulate and protect our water sources leaves a lot out of the conversation. It leaves out water rights of Indigenous peoples and the need for free, prior and informed consent to be obtained in all decisions affecting water. It leaves out that water is a public trust and that governments have a responsibility to protect for community use over private abuse. It leaves out that water and sanitation is a human right and no one should ever be denied clean water for personal or community use. And perhaps most importantly, it leaves out that water is a commons and that every one of us has a responsibility to protect it.

I recently came from the Unist'ot'en Camp which is along the Wedzin Kwah (also known as the Morice River which is a tributary to the Skeena and Bulkley Rivers).  It is one of the few places left on earth where you can still drink directly out of the river. It is critical for us to support the Unist’ot’en people in their work to protect this river, the surrounding waters and land.

If we were to apply a pricing scheme to regulate industries’ water takings – even at higher rates – to a river like the Wedzin Kwah, we would inevitably see the decline and degradation of it.

It is within our power to apply a community water governance system that recognizes Indigenous water rights and water as a commons, public trust and human right.Instead, it is within our power to apply a community water governance system that recognizes Indigenous water rights and water as a commons, public trust and human right. Doing so might actually save the river so that future generations can drink directly from it like I recently did. And doing so might actually help to save other lakes, rivers and ground water under threat.

Yes, we need user fees for some water uses. There are costs associated with water protection and community management of water. But we do not have to – and should not - consent to water being bottled and exported out of a region nor should we consent to water being used for polluting industries like fracking or tar sands extraction. For these industries, we do not have a drop to spare.

We need to expand our water conversations to include more issues and concerns than simply the rates that companies and people pay. It is not enough demand just that. I urge activists, NGOs, decision makers, residents and communities to change the conversation. It is time to recognize Indigenous water rights and water as a human right, commons and public trust in water legislation as a way in which to truly protect our waters.

© 2021 Council of Canadians

Emma Lui

Emma Lui is a water campaigner for the Council of Canadians.

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