You are hereWatergate; How bottled water could drink Canada dry
Watergate; How bottled water could drink Canada dry
Dianne Rinehart, 3 March 2007, The Hamilton Spectator - If you think Earth Water, whose website declares it, "comes from the Saskatchewan Glacier," and proudly flashes the UN High Commission for Refugee logo, sounds delicious, socially conscious and environmentally friendly, you're hardly alone.
But can their pretty blue bottles be the thin edge of a wedge that will pit Canada against its southern neighbour -- and big business -- for control of water supplies?
"The next struggle is going to be over water," predicts Verda Cook, the campaigns coordinator for the Polaris Institute, a citizens' rights organization. "In a sense, it's more precious than oil and it is being sold for more."
In fact, the Big Four -- Nestle, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Danone -- have already created an estimated $50 billion a year business by convincing us that bottled water is better tasting and purer than tap water -- none of which is true. And that's at prices one-third to 10 times that of a litre of gas -- for a resource that doesn't require billions to extract.
Bottled water, in fact, retails for 240 to 10,000 times as much as tap water, even when it is tap water -- as 40 per cent of the bottled water on the market is!
So how long will it be before multinationals, other than bottlers, get involved? Too late.
Water activists point to conglomerates, such as Monsanto, buying water rights around the world. Whether it's to control supplies of the new "blue gold" or ensure they can water corn crops to make ethanol -- the "environmental" fuel -- one thing is certain: it's scary.
Meanwhile, combine corporate greed with public need, in the United States for example, and the situation could get testy for Canada.
Look at areas that are already semi-arid, add the expected pressures created by climate change and more population, "and you have stress," warns Adele Hurley, director of the program on water issues at the University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Studies.
And if political power becomes concentrated in the American southwest, where population density and agricultural practices are already depleting aquifers, you can see where all this could lead, warns Sarah Miller, water policy researcher at the Canadian Environmental Law Association. "This is not a good mix."
A senior Foreign Affairs officer, who asked not to be named, says the government recognizes the potential for water conflicts, but is confident regional controls and bilateral water agreements can resolve them.
Local governments can protect groundwater resources by refusing to license bottlers, he says. And the Great Lakes are well protected by myriad agreements, he insists, including a ban on "bulk water" shipments --by tanker, for example.
Bulk shipments of bottled water aren't feasible, he argues. "A cubic metre of water weighs a metric tonne."
Still, activists argue that water is slipping out of Canadian watersheds, bottle by bottle, because under trade agreements water is considered a commodity when it's bottled, so exports can't be banned, and the bulk water ban doesn't apply to containers 20 litres or smaller. "We call it the Great Lakes loophole," says Cook. "In less than 20-litre containers, there's no limit on how much you can take."
And McMaster University political science professor Robert O'Brien wonders whether even the bulk water ban will hold. "If they're in a crisis, there will be pressure to change that."
Meanwhile, the "weight" of water hasn't stopped bottlers from exporting worldwide at huge profits.
Consider Earth Water, founded by 28-year-old Kori Chilibeck two years ago. His Saskatchewan Glacier waters, distilled or filtered before bottling, come directly from Edmonton's water system. Yup, tap water.
So low are Chilibeck's costs and so high his planned growth that he expects to donate $1.2 million in profits by 2010 to UN humanitarian water aid relief.
Hence the UN's permission to use its logo, something Susan Howatt, the national water campaigner with the Council of Canadians, compares to using profits from handgun sales to help victims of violence.
"(Earth Water) is part of the problem, not part of the solution, and it's undermining our confidence in public water." The more bottled water we buy, the more we lose control over our resources, she explains.
How much Coca-Cola and Pepsi, for example, buy from Brampton and Mississauga for their Dasani and Aquafina brands is considered private information, says Cook.
"We can't even assess the environmental impact," although the fact they're paying commercial rates -- five cents for every 1,000 litres in Brampton -- implies big sales and translates into huge profits.
Andrew Miall, a geology professor at the University of Toronto, calculated the profit for one flat of bottled water at one store. The total retail value of 24,192 bottles containing 12,096 litres of water and about 314 kg of plastic at 42 cents a litre was $5,029.
The same water purchased in bulk from Toronto: $16.
"And who gets hurt when municipal sources are drained?" asks Howatt.
It's not just municipal water that's at risk. Ontario's environment ministry has reportedly granted permits allowing an estimated 1,800 billion litres a year to be pumped from aquifers, although no one knows how much is exported outside the source watersheds.
"There's been a myth of abundance," Hurley warns. It's time the government invested in studies.
In the meantime, perhaps we should forgo bottled water and simply turn on the tap while we still can.
Dianne Rinehart is an Ottawa-based reporter.