In 2010, the United Nations confirmed there is a universal human right to adequate water for consumption. Unfortunately, this supposed entitlement is not distributed proportionately and some of the most marginalized areas in the world experience water stress. Cue a complex war on water with the interposition of both privatization and exploitation.
Water is not a limitless resource and its consumption should be treated carefully. While I fundamentally agree that water is a human necessity, I am not ignorant toward the politics of water as a privilege.
Water is a commodity by the very nature of its value; it is a source that will continue to be marketed, sold, and consumed.
In Canada, the government has proven to be overly lenient when it comes to this exchange; alarmingly, there’s a severe lack of regulation at both provincial and federal levels. In 2016, the government hoped to harness this commodification by regulating its consumption: charging large companies fees for their utilization and extraction of groundwater. This reform was unprecedented in provinces like British Columbia where the news of the impending regulated water techniques generated critique and triggered a discourse.
In 2015 when I drafted this article, to illustrate my concern I used Nestlé, the largest producer of bottled water in Canada today, as a point of reference. The National Post’s Dan Fumano explained that Nestlé will pay the Canadian government the rate of $2.25 per million litres. In fact, Fumano claimed “Nestlé will pay the government $596.25 a year for 265 million litres of water.” Confused?
You pay about three dollars for a litre of bottled water, but starting in January 2016, Nestlé paid less than that in regulatory fees for extracting one million litres of groundwater.
This privatization removes the resource from public hands and redirects ownership toward greedy corporations and governmental institutions that are not guaranteed to take every precaution necessary to establish a principled use of water. Corporations are concerned about how to capitalize with speed and abundance; unfortunately, local communities and regions are likely to be neglected in this process. Water as a human right, and necessity, is being overlooked.
The CEO of Nestlé Canada, Shelley Martin, spearheads the notion that businesses are successful when the local community is tended to. The irony is palpable though: the CEO praising community consideration while simultaneously signing contracts to further the company’s exploitative approach to the sale of water, and preparing to purchase one million litres of water for the price of a large cup of coffee.
For me, the question has expanded: who owns water? What about small-scale businesses reliant on this resource, is this another classic capitalistic takeover as the extraction and sale of water becomes more accessible for behemoth corporations wielding money and power? What about broader community impacts at a local level; can regulation indicate local protection? Past this, what happens when the demand for water far exceeds the supply of it? Even before complications of resource extraction, how does the future of water hold up in the midst of climate change? What about hydropower initiatives, or food sustainability and agricultural irrigation processes dependent on water?
Though Nestlé is an incredibly lucrative brand, the company’s privatization of water coupled with Canada’s inability to structure fortified future regulations reveals the degenerate side of business. If privatization is the logical next step, sustainability should be a uniting goal. Paying less than one month’s rent for 265 million litres of water is unacceptable, unsustainable, and obscures the UN’s prescription of water as a human right.