Bottled drinks company Nestlé has extracted 1 billion litres of water from aquifers in rural Ontario since its permits expired last year, activists said on Monday, following protests against the company at one of its well sites.
More than 100 people marched from a farmhouse in Wellington County, southwest of Toronto, to a well owned by Nestlé on Sunday with some activists promising non-violent civil disobedience to block company trucks if any water is removed from the site.
The Switzerland-based company has yet to extract water from the well where campaigners held their protest, but Nestlé is extracting water from two other sites in the region, and activists want those operations to be gradually phased out.
“If Nestlé starts pumping water from this area, it will potentially deplete our wells,” said local campaigner Amy Corner before tying a blue ribbon to a fence surrounding the well.
The Elora region’s population is expected to double in the next 25 years, Corner told VICE News, and residents fear they will be competing with the multinational for water that they say is needed for local consumption rather than bottles to be exported.
Ontario’s government has issued a moratorium on new and expanded permits for bottled water extraction, and Nestlé is not considering further actions to expand its operations until that moratorium ends in January 2019, a company spokesperson said.
“Water itself is a renewable resource as long as we make sure the water system is maintained,” Nestlé spokesperson Jennifer Kerr told VICE News. “Our program is in place to make sure those watersheds are sustained and that we’re sharing the data, knowledge and time with provincial and municipal governments, conservation authorities and local communities,” she wrote in an email.
Permits for taking water from wells in Aberfoyle and the nearby town of Erin expired in 2016 and the summer of 2017 respectively. The company blames the expired permits on a series of complicated changes to extraction rules from provincial authorities.
Ontario’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change says Nestlé is within its rights to continue extracting water on expired permits due to the changes imposed by government regulators on the industry.
Nestlé is entitled to take up to 4.7 million litres of water per day from its wells in Aberfoyle and Erin, although the company says it actually extracts far less than its allotment.
‘Precious right now’
Held at an organic farm with a chicken shed and horses, the demonstration involved protesters performing a skit where Snidely Bigwater, wearing a top hat and representing bottled water companies, cackled as he prodded Little Miss Middlebrook, representing the local aquifer, with a metal tube symbolizing what activists say is the exploitative process of water extraction.
“All the money in the world won’t create more water,” Mike Nagy, environmental activist
Representatives of Nestlé were on hand for the demonstration and said they welcome dialogue with campaigners. “Our commitment is to ensure that Canadians can access water in every form possible, with zero negative impact to the source,” Nestlé’s spokesperson said.
The bottled water industry extracts less than 0.02 percent of the fresh water available for taking in Canada, according to the Canadian Bottled Water Association, an industry trade group.
Water bottlers have to pay $503.71 for every million litres of groundwater they extract as of August, up from the previous $3.71 fee. But activists say that is not enough, given the need for water and the region’s growing population.
Protest organizer Mike Nagy said he remembers seeing trucks carrying water roll past his house in the summer of 2016 amid one of the worst droughts Ontario has ever seen. Local residents were forced to cut back on the amount of water they used, but companies continued to bottle water from the aquifer, the activist said.
“This water is identified as extremely precious in the short term,” Nagy told VICE News. “All the money in the world won’t create more water, he said, accusing the company of “profiting from one of the most precious things on earth.”