Today, Nestlé pays just $3.71 per every million litres of water the company pumps out of the ground in Ontario, so that it can bottle it and then and sell it back to thirsty customers for profit. But that won't last for much longer.
The provincial government, which sets the price rates for water, is set to propose a sharp increase in the amount that companies like Nestlé pay, the Canadian Press reported on Wednesday. The proposed fee will be $503.71 per million litres of water, an increase of roughly 13,500 percent.
Nestlé is licensed to pump 4.7 million litres of water per day from two sites in Ontario, meaning that the company will now pay $2,367 for the water it takes every day, instead of the paltry $17.50 it pays now.
Nestlé has been the subject of public scrutiny since the company purchased a well in September by outbidding the small Ontario township of Centre Wellington, which wanted to secure a publicly-owned source of water for itself. In October, feeling the pressure, the province proposed a two-year moratorium on any new or extended water-taking permits.
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According to Stephen Scharper, a professor at the University of Toronto's School of the Environment, the price increase should be celebrated, if only because the public's outrage has clearly been heard. But the larger, unanswered question is: should water be a commodity to begin with?
"There's an economic issue here, yes, and if water is being used as a commodity then it should be priced accordingly," Scharper said. "But the larger question is whether water for bottling purposes should be for sale at all."
"If this decision leads to an acceptance of water as a commodity instead of a basic common good, then that might be a problem," he continued.
Scharper's perspective is one that goes back to the first enclosing of communal farming lands by the wealthy to create private property in the 1700s, creating a class of landless labourers. While bottled water may be necessary in emergency situations, there's no inherent reason that water, like land, should be a luxury good.
The Wellington Water Watchers, a non-profit group based in Guelph, Ontario, shares this point of view, and has run campaigns with names like "Water for Life, Not for Profit."
"We believe water should be a commons, and we support the government in raising rates insofar as they recover the cost of the permitting system," said Robert Case, an assistant professor of social development at the University of Waterloo and treasurer for the Wellington Water Watchers. "But this raises the dangerous perception that water has a price on it—money isn't going to put any more water back in the watershed."
Also unaddressed by raising the cost of water-taking is the larger impact of the bottled water industry, Case said. "The industry pumps water out of the ground, and spews out a plastic bottle for every 500 millilitres—we get water, which we can get anyway from public sources, and we're left with garbage."
"In principle, we believe all groundwater users should be treated equally, but we understand and appreciate that opinions differ regarding the rates various water users should pay," Nestlé said in a statement. "Nestlé Waters Canada agrees that water sustainability is non-negotiable and all investments in groundwater research are a positive step toward our shared prosperity and a sustainable future."
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Update: This article has been updated to include comment from Nestlé Waters Canada.