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The World Water Crisis, and What Canada Isn’t Doing to Delay It

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What is the price of water?
 
In a country as vast as Canada, it is often easy to take for granted the easy, free access we have to uncontaminated fresh water. We are fortunate to live in a land that is so teeming with lakes and rivers that most do not have names. It is so presumed that this precious resource is in abundance that a town in Ontario (specifically, Guelph) can sell its water at the rock-bottom rate of $3.71 per million litres to a foreign corporation, Nestlé, over a 30-year period.
 
Currently, Canada’s freshwater resources are barely protected. For years, successive federal governments (both Liberal and Conservative) have neglected our freshwater, allowing for the serious deterioration of our country’s lakes. And it was only in 2015 that the Ontario government passed the Great Lakes Protection Act. But hope-instilling changes that come with the new Liberal government may not be enough. When Guelph experienced a water crisis recently, it had no remedy against Nestlé to stop extracting its water. This is certainly something that must change soon. The world is experiencing a water crisis and Canada is not immune.
 
You may have heard that Canada holds 20% of the world’s water supply. But this statistic is misleading. Most of this water is contained in lakes, which we cannot drain lest we destroy whole watersheds. In fact, Canada only possesses 6.5% of the world’s renewable water, 90% of which is out of the reach of its Southern-dwelling population, which is mostly huddled along the border.
 
On Tuesday, February 7, 2017, the Sustainability and Environmental Law Club hosted the third session in its annual series of “Enviro-Law-Chats” to have a casual, yet serious discussion about possible ways the government could institute policy to protect water and promote water conservation efforts in Canada and in Ontario. (It should be noted that most of us lamented the fact that we weren’t as informed on water law and policy in Canada as we wanted to be.)
 
The club mostly discussed the Nestlé story, which is a striking example of where there is potential for abuse of a lenient water law system lacking in regulatory oversight or political direction. Currently, Nestlé operates two wells in Guelph and extract 4.7 million litres of water a day. That means it only pays $17.50 a day. If a half-litre of a Nestlé water bottle is $2.00 from a vending machine, this rate feels like theft.
 
The rates for water are set by the provincial government. In British Columbia, Nestlé is extracting water in a well in the Fraser Valley for absolutely nothing. Ontario is hoping to hike the rate to $503.71 per million litres, which would mean a payment of $2,367 per 4.7 million litres of water. The major question posed to the group at the enviro-chats was whether this proposed reform is sufficient.
 
In an article published on the website Collective Evolution (from which these statistics were drawn), it was reported that Nestlé recently outbid a township for use of a well that was intended by the township to act as their public water supply. Also, the permits with which Nestlé operates were never intended to be used for the type of mass-scale commercial exploitation that is the plastic water-bottling industry.
 
While the Club conceded that water should not be a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder (like Nestlé), it was also agreed that it should also be a resource protected with laws.
 
On the other end of the spectrum, is water a basic human right? A third of First Nations live on reserves with no source of clean drinking water. And this problem is a result of government negligence currently happening. Like right now, not some hardship inflicted by “Sir” John A McDonald’s assimilation policies.
 
Undoubtedly, the government is to blame for all our concerns and issues related to water. But which one? It’s difficult to say where we should invest out limited lobbying resources, and it’s likely that neither has much incentive to do so. (Note Professor Bruce Pardy’s 2004 article on the government’s complicated relationship with water policy.)
 
The Trudeau government has made pledges to invest in foreign and domestic climate change and infrastructure over the next 5 years, but whether water conservation is truly a priority among the various goals involved in those initiatives is difficult to determine with certainty. Somehow, it’s missed out on details like the First Nations’ water crises and Nestlé’s abuse of our lax water regulations.
 
The Sustainability and Environmental Law Club concluded, as you may have guessed, that as a community we should pay more attention to water in the future, taking action through such means as slapping tariffs on companies like Nestlé who mine our water for gross profits, and holding our politicians to account.
 
As always, the economic incentive to give bargain prices to Nestlé so that they will employ Canadians at their plants is highly attractive, especially in an era of Trumpism and anti-free-trade sentiment. But when you’re making a long-term investment in the renewability of resources essential human survival, some economic sacrifices must inevitably be made.
 
Hilary Smith (2L) is a contributor to Juris Diction.

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