Protecting B.C.’s Freshwater, the Wrong Way

Petition to charge corporations more for groundwater is misguided

Amanda Paananen / The Runner

As temperatures soar and British Columbia’s drought carries on, and as restrictions on water use become ever tighter, many B.C. residents have been understandably shocked and angered to learn that multinational corporate giant and literal manifestation of Satan Nestlé continues to legally extract the province’s groundwater for practically free.

While Metro Vancouver’s water supply is becoming critically low, the province charges the food and beverage multinational a measly $2.25 per million litres taken out of the ground. $2.25! Not much higher than the price Nestlé gives us when they sell the stuff back to us by the bottle. Fortunately, the internet is here to save the day with a petition that will force Nestlé to pay more for our precious natural resource. Surely the power of internet outrage will save us all!

Well, not quite.

Upon further inspection this issue turns out to be a great example of why it’s important to be critical and learn the facts before taking action. Why? Because the aforementioned petition, if heeded, could do far more harm to our ownership of our natural resources than good.

Corporate control over our nation’s drinking water has been a serious issue for some time. The 2008 documentary Blue Gold: World Water Wars warns that as water becomes more and more valuable on the global market, corporations will try to gain control of freshwater sources, making water a commodity rather than a free-flowing human right. It’s a legitimate and worrying issue, particularly in Canada, the most freshwater-rich country in the world.

The $2.25 figure comes from the Water Sustainability Act, which was passed by the BC legislature last year and actually raised the price from just $0.02 per million litres. This fee doesn’t include the considerable overhead it takes to actually extract the water. It’s also important to note that this price is a fee for accessing the water, rather than a price to purchase the water from the province.

That last part is a very important distinction because to actually sell the water would make it a tradable good, a commodity. Currently, Nestlé is allowed to extract, clean and bottle the water at its own expense but it doesn’t own the water. One can think of the price paid for a bottle of water as payment for the service of providing the water in a convenient package rather than buying the water itself, similar to how we pay to have water pumped into our homes.

Changing the way we allow companies to extract water by allowing them to purchase it at a market rate could open the door for corporations to start buying up water, which would give them far more control over our water sources. Nestlé knows this, which is why the company has been publicly supportive of potential legislation that would have it paying more but receiving ownership of water. This petition could backfire horribly.

This isn’t to say that B.C. shouldn’t be getting a better deal out of Nestlé’s extremely profitable bottled water business. B.C.’s $2.25 administration fee is currently the lowest charged anywhere in Canada, with Quebec charging $70 per million litres and Nova Scotia getting as high as $140. It would not hurt the province to look into this administration fee as long as it remains an administration fee. There’s no reason why Nestlé’s exploitation of our home’s natural gifts can’t work in our benefit.

So does this all mean that Nestlé’s ethics have been unfairly judged by the populous? Hell no. Many of the company’s other business practices reach cartoonish levels of evil. From its horrendous environmental record, to its practice of marketing infant formula to mothers in developing countries based on false and misleading claims, Nestlé is one of the most boycotted companies in the world and it’s well earned. However, it’s important to be careful with how we act on our outrage. Misled action might just play right into corporate hands.

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