Bottled water

We love to hate it – but is it really the most important water issue facing us?

Ben Kerr, Foundry Spatial CEO and Chief Water Scientist reflects on solving the biggest problems first

Canada’s bottled water industry is really good at two things: making money (they sell water… in a bottle!); and stirring up a lot of emotion. With the tragic exception of some remote First Nations communities, most Canadians have clean, safe, and reliable sources of water to meet all of their health and sanitation needs – which makes the idea of paying for water in a bottle superfluous (and more than a little ridiculous).

Especially in times of drought, fire, or other supply shortages, water-taking by multinational corporations like Nestle quickly becomes a cause célèbre that people rally against – on Facebook and in real life.

For example, public outcry in the summer of 2015 was directed towards the Nestle bottling plant near Hope, BC. In a hot, dry year, British Columbia was burning, and Nestle was paying pennies for their use of our groundwater. It made an easy rallying point for citizens concerned about water sustainability in the province. Hundreds of thousands of signatures were submitted through online petitions before the BC government agreed to review water bottling rates.

Fast forward to fall 2016, and Nestle is again in the news for acquiring a groundwater well in Ontario, in which a local community had also had an interest. Cue the protests, locally and nationally. Last week the government of Ontario announced a moratorium on water bottling permits and pump tests associated with those kinds of businesses. Political stick handling, or real action? Only time will tell – but it’s such an easy and publicly visible “win” that you have to wonder what we’re doing about more tricky water issues.

The ethical question of bottling and selling local water is best addressed by local governments. Bundanoon, a rural suburb of Sydney, Australia, banned outright the sale of bottled water in their municipality over a decade ago. Since then university campuses and towns across the world have followed suit, as have many cities. Victoria and Vancouver, for example, have bans in place for bottled water sales on municipal property.

At the end of the day, increased public attention to our water resources is a very good thing, but the question has to be raised: why paint a target on Nestle? Water is our most valuable resource and a key ingredient for every industry. In southwestern BC, agriculture is by far the biggest water user; are we willing to protest, or even to ask hard questions about water use in this sector? In the same way, do we protest – or even think about – how Coca-Cola mixes the vast amount of water they take with food colouring and an alarming amount of high fructose corn syrup? A bottle of water might not make sense, but at least the product doesn’t give you diabetes.

Our bodies – and the surface of our blue world – are mostly made of water. It’s important stuff, which is why we get so emotional about who takes it, and for what. But precisely because it’s so important, we need to figure out what the real issues are – and focus on fixing the biggest problems first.

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