Every day, 3.6 million litres of water are extracted in Aberfoyle, 1.1 million in Erin and as of January 1.6 million more will be sucked from the mega-well in Elora. In many communities in Ontario, a fierce battle is being fought between the biggest players in the bottled water industry and the citizens who want to protect their territory, safeguard this precious resource and not allow water to be commodified.
Small blue and white houses, with picket fences freshly painted each season, their gardens filled with roses, birthroots and violets. Cars parked carefully in the driveways, beside manicured front lawns. By the side of the road, while kids whizz by on their bikes, a little girl sells lemonade next door to a lovely boutique filled with hand-made clothes. This is Elora, Canada. An idyllic manifestation of the good life in Canadian provinces. Everything seems perfect. Overlooking the Grand River, in the heart of the village, residents and visitors alike can delight in the comforts of Serenity Café, the Shepherd’s Pub and the Creperie. Tourism in Elora is booming, so much so that the old mill is being turned into a luxury inn. The main attraction for visitors, apart from the Main Street, is Elora Gorge, where Irvine Creek meets the Grand River amidst towering limestone cliffs. Here you can sit back, relax and take in the beautiful scenery, while you enjoy a delicious locally-sourced hamburger, an IPA and some corn on the cob.
However, the quiet and picturesque town of Elora is also one of the main battlefields in the water war. A war that is being fought by the citizens of Ontario, Canada’s largest province, against some of the world’s largest water-industry corporations, known colloquially as Big Water. As of January 1st 2019, Nestlé Water Canada, the local water division of the Swiss multinational corporation, will start extracting 1.6 million litres of water a day from Middlebrook well, located less than a mile from Elora; a well that they purchased in 2016. This is the third “mega-well” in the area, together with those in Aberfoyle and Erin, which Nestlé has secured access to with considerable investments.
Rob McKay, a sixty-four-year-old farmer and horse-breeder, retired ten years ago as Managing Director of a large local business. He lives with his brother and his horses in a beautiful rural home with a distinctive pointy roof, not far from the Middlebrook well. “We’re really unhappy with this situation,” says Rob, looking out of the window. “Our artesian well dried up when they performed one of the first pumping tests. We may not have scientific evidence that something is amiss, but our feeling is that the situation is extremely problematic.” Across the Elora community posters and signs are springing up, bearing the motto ‘Save Our Water’ and demonstrating how well organised the citizens are. It’s quite easy to get your message out to everyone, including the Mayor. And no one wants to give up. “Through the ‘Save Our Water’ campaign we have already stopped the bottler whose plant was bought by Nestlé,” says Doug MacKay, Rob’s brother, “and we can do it again.”
“My fellow citizens are opposed to the privatisation and bottling of water,” explains Mayor Kelly Linton, while we sit by the river in Bissel Park. “But the theme which unites everyone, even those who didn’t vote for me, is that the future growth of our small town, which is also happening thanks to the new tourism-oriented projects, will require more water. And we want to be sure that there is enough water for everyone, before we let it be bottled and shipped to the other side of the country.”
It’s hard to find anyone in Elora who is averse to the use of water for beer or fizzy drinks. In fact, the Elora Brewery Co. micro-brewery is the pride and joy of the town. “Beer doesn’t flow out of people’s taps, and thus has an added value, whereas bottled water is pure profiteering,” comments Arlene Slocombe, director of Wellington Water Watchers. This activist organisation has been fighting for many years to protect local groundwater resources, and its efforts are also aimed at educating the public on issues related to the exploitation of water resources.
While Canadians only constitute about 0.4% of the global population, their country possesses 7% of the world’s freshwater resources. This figure rises to 13% if we take into consideration fossil groundwater and glacial water. Given this natural wealth, it’s hard to imagine why some Canadians are facing water resource crisis situations.
Until a few years ago, barely anyone in Canada bought bottled water. Even now, the percentage of Canadians who prefer bottled water for domestic use, which in 2017 was 19%, is lower than in many other countries. Québécois people consume 700 million water bottles a year, while the figure for Toronto is 100 million. Even though the use of tap water is safe for the majority of Canadians, the water industry manages to generate $2.5 billion in sales, mainly through Nestlé and its subsidiaries: PureLife, Perrier, S. Pellegrino, Acqua Panna, and Montclair. Data from the Canadian Bottled Water Association shows that municipal filtered water, rather than spring water, is used in 25% of cases. Aquafina, the Pepsi water brand, uses municipal tap water form Mississauga, Ontario. Nestlé’s PureLife uses public resources from Hillsburgh, Ontario. A survey on World Water Day, commissioned by Wellington Water Watchers and SumOfUs Canada Society, found that 64% of Ontario’s citizens, regardless of political affiliation, supports the cessation of water extraction for bottling in Ontario within ten years. Furthermore, a majority within this cohort would like this to happen within two years (52%).