BY SARAH BERMAN, VICE
Imagine for a moment what it was like making laws happen in the year 1909. Racism was widely encouraged, women weren’t allowed to vote, and law books seemed to have infinite room for shit about duels and general horse etiquette, along with the god-awful phenomenon that was temperance.
Lucky for multi-billion dollar corporations like Nestlé, British Columbia’s laws around drinking water are still stuck in this equestrian-centric, non-alcoholic era. Nestlé Waters Canada (a subsidiary of Nestlé, the multinational food company responsible for everything from Stouffer’s to Smarties) is extracting hundreds of millions of litres of groundwater from Hope, B.C.’s water table without paying a cent, applying for a permit or even consulting with neighbours, and then selling it back to us.
“If you think about it in Olympic-sized swimming pools, which are 2.5 million litres each, Nestlé is taking nearly 107 Olympic swimming pools every year,” says WaterWealth campaigner Sheila Muxlow. “It’s basically a small lake.”
Last week, an investigation revealed B.C. is the only province in Canada that doesn’t regulate its groundwater. Other provinces like Ontario and Nova Scotia collect between $3 and $146 per million litres of extracted groundwater, and maintain a formal permitting process. While there’s been talk of updating the 104-year-old B.C. Water Act over the last 20 years, progress has been embarrassingly slow.
“The Water Act as we understand it was designed for a completely different time,” says Oliver Brandes, lead researcher of the Water Sustainability Project at the University of Victoria’s Centre for Global Studies. “You can probably imagine what B.C. looked like to the government of the day: infinite land, infinite forest.”
It’s not 1909 anymore, and we know that resources are not infinite. Still, corporations in B.C. aren’t required to tell anybody—including surrounding First Nations—how much water they’re pumping out of the ground.
“There are some modest rules around drilling and capping water wells, but there are zero rules around how much you withdraw,” Brandes says. Muxlow lives in Chilliwack, about 50 km west of Hope, where Nestlé also has a bottling and distribution plant. Over the last decade, she and surrounding communities have seen Nestlé steadily stepping up its production.
“It was not a 24/7 operation before, but now it’s pumping at all hours,” Muxlow says, adding the number of semi-trucks on the winding, mountain road has also risen with Nestlé’s expansions.
There are many reasons to dislike the most profitable food and beverage company in the world. Nestlé gets moms at Costco to buy water at a higher markup than gasoline. They’ve had to recall products in China and Spain due to traces of melamine and horse DNA, respectively. And being a producer of hundreds of chocolate bar brands, they’re definitely on the wrong side of America’s obesity epidemic.
Despite all that, Nestlé aren’t the bad guys in this situation. “They’re not violating the law—they’re not the criminals here,” Muxlow says. So far, Nestlé Waters Canada have been good sports, providing voluntary info about their plant to the B.C. government. Nestlé spokesperson John Challinor says the facilities also comply with Health Canada standards.
The scary part is the B.C. Ministry of Environment actually trusts Nestle and other corporations to volunteer and play fair. “We don’t have any third party science to back the corporation’s statements,” says Muxlow. “A corporation is going to say what’s going to work to perpetuate their business. There’s no third-party expertise ensuring lines of accountability.”
Such a cavalier approach to corporations’ use of water is already impacting crop returns in Texas. Agricultural companies have been over-pumping the Ogallala aquifer for years, depleting one of America’s largest sources of fresh water. Meanwhile in Vermont, politicians smartened up years ago and declared water a public trust. B.C. is aiming to pass a brand new Water Sustainability Act in 2014, which would replace the super-dated Water Act. They’ve likely been able to drag their feet this long, simply because Canada has so many freshwater resources.
“It clearly has not a priority for decision makers in this province,” says Muxlow. “It’s no question that water is abundant in B.C.—we’re lucky in that regard … people who can think globally and are watching what is happening with the world’s water resources see that we need to make sure our resources are managed properly.”
Canada has the fourth-largest supply of freshwater, behind Russia, Brazil and China. With such old-school rules, Nestlé is probably keeping their eye on our brand new lake at the North Pole while the government continues to trust that the corporation will simply just do the right thing.