The multinational food giant Nestle has been accused of attempting to “drain” an Ontario town of its water as the company fights to remove newly-placed restrictions on its ability to draw water during times of drought.
But Nestle Waters Canada says it practices sustainable water use, and argues it’s being unfairly targeted, as no other water-drawing businesses in the area have mandatory restrictions during droughts.
Nestle, the world’s largest bottler of water, has recently been in the spotlight over its water policies, after a 2005 video went viral last month, showing Nestle Chairman Peter Brabeck arguing that water should not be considered a human right, and be treated as a foodstuff commodity instead. (He seems to have changed his tune recently.)
Nestle was recently given a five-year extension on its permit to draw as much as 1.1 million litres of water daily from a well in Hillsburgh, Ontario, near the city of Guelph. As part of that permit extension, the province made it mandatory for Nestle to reduce water-taking during times of drought.
The area has suffered three droughts since 2007. The first half of 2012 was the driest the area has been since 1958.
Nestle’s previous water-taking permit did not include mandatory drought limits, and the company appealed the new permit’s restrictions. The Ontario Ministry of the Environment agreed in February to remove the restrictions.
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But that got the attention of many social justice groups, which saw something potentially nefarious in Nestle’s insistence that it not face mandatory water-taking restrictions during drought. The Council of Canadians, along with several regional conservation groups, has appealed the ministry’s decision to an environmental tribunal.
“We find it very troubling that the Ontario government has settled with Nestle,” Council of Canadians chair Maude Barlow said in a statement. “Ontario must prioritize communities’ right to water above a private company’s thirst for profit. Our government must think about water availability for our grand children, great grand children and beyond.”
“Under its current permit, Nestlé pays $3.71 for every million litres of water it pumps from the local watershed, which it then packages in single-use plastic bottles and sells back to the public for as much as $2 million,” the Council says.
But a Nestle spokesman told The Huffington Post Canada that the drought restrictions were only put in place due to an “administrative misunderstanding,” and mandatory rules were never the intent.
Corporate affairs director John B. Challinor said the company has always complied with requests for voluntary reduction of water use, and the province always has the ability to order reductions in times of severe drought.
Challinor argued there are other enterprises taking more water in the area than Nestle does, noting that the quarries and golf courses in the area are not subject to mandatory water-drawing restrictions.
“They get a free pass, and we don’t,” Challinor said, adding that “it’s an issue of fairness.”
Challinor said the company was being unfairly targeted “because we’re a large multinational corporation.”
But the Council of Canadians says the case before the tribunal is about more than Nestle’s use of water, and goes to the issue of how much control residents have over the use of a public resource.
“If successful, this case could set a crucial precedent for recognizing water as a public trust and granting communities priority rights to control their water, and how it is used,” the group says.
Challinor said the Council of Canadians took up the cause against Nestle because it “doesn’t support multinational trade.”
Challinor said Nestle takes groundwater, not surface water, in the Hillsburgh area and hydro-geological studies show groundwater levels don’t affect surface water levels in the area.
He said Nestle aims to be sustainable in its water use and “would never consider” running a well dry because it would harm the business.
“Some Nestle wells in Europe have been operating for 600 years,” he said.
No timeline has been set for the Ontario Environmental Tribunal’s decision on the matter.