Ontario is rich in freshwater, ripe for the taking by private companies that want to bottle it and sell it for profit. But the pressures of climate change mean this won't be true forever. Now, the provincial government is planning to step in and introduce new water-taking regulations that address our environmental reality.
The province is set to propose a temporary ban on any new water bottling operations while it firms up stricter rules for companies like Nestlé that pump water from the ground. The company pays a measly $3.71 CAD per every million litres it removes. (At Walmart, a 24-pack of 500 ml Nestlé bottles sells for $3.47.)
One reason for the proposed ban, as reported by the Canadian Press (CP), is both heartening from an environmental perspective, and utterly dystopian: the government has its eye on climate change, and the increased risk of drought it presents.
According to the CP report, which cites sources familiar with the matter, the Ontario Liberals will make it mandatory to reduce the amount of water taken in drought-stricken areas, and will require scientific studies on the environmental effects of any new water-taking activities.
These proposed measures are designed to fit within the government's larger push to address and combat the risks posed by climate change, CP notes.
"We are fully supportive and share the Ontario Government's commitment to protecting water resources," said Debbie Moore, President of Nestlé Waters Canada, in a statement. "Through investment in an industry-leading monitoring program over the last 15 years in Aberfoyle and Erin, we have been sharing information with the government and local community. We will continue to offer this science and transparent data to all stakeholders that share our commitment to water sustainability and conservation throughout this process."
Climate change, which is drying out some parts of the country while threatening to send others beneath the waves, is hitting Canada hard. The wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta that began in May caused mass evacuations and were declared under control two months later, in July. The incredible longevity of the fires, which consumed thousands of homes, was partly attributed to dry conditions brought about by warmer temperatures.
Experts agree that Canada will see more climate catastrophes in the near future, including some communities being displaced due to rising sea levels. Droughts and dry conditions will likely be among its other effects. Perhaps mindful of this, there's been a massive public outcry against Nestlé's water-pumping efforts, and even calls for a boycott.
Reducing water pumping from drought-stricken areas isn't new for Nestlé, which voluntarily did so when an Ontario community called Wellington County faced drought conditions earlier this year. In the past, however, Nestlé has fought attempts to stop its water-taking under conditions of severe drought.
But if droughts become more common, or more severe, then Nestlé and similar companies will, presumably, have to significantly claw back their operations in Ontario.
On the one hand, that the Ontario government is pegging its push for stricter rules on water to climate change is an unsettling look into our near future—but on the other, it's encouraging to see the government address this existential threat.
According to CP, there are no plans to immediately change the $3.71 fee for pumping one million litres of water from the ground to sell in bottles.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.
UPDATE 10/17: This article has been updated with comment from Nestlé Canada.