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%).

The Bottled Water Boom

According to Mark Calzavara, Regional Organiser of the Council of Canadians and long-time activist, “bottled water is a new phenomenon here in Canada.” As we walk by the shores of Lake Ontario and look out over the immense body of freshwater, he explains: “Thanks to clever marketing strategies, the water industry has convinced people that drinking bottled water is fancy and chic. By exploiting the narrative which connects constant hydration to good health, it entices people to drink all the time, but only bottled water that can be carried around, and which is safer than tap water. This strategy is truly fiendish and misleading. Tap water is tested by the government, whereas bottled water is only checked by the companies that profit from selling it.” Shelves bearing numerous varieties of water are easy to find in any Toronto supermarket. Nestlé, Evian, Panna are all there, along with flavoured waters: the current fad in terms of hydration and wellness. One bottle even goes as far as advertising the fact that it’s Vegan.”

Peaceful rural communities tend to be the ones that are most concerned with extraction plans for bottled water, because it is in their territory that most springs and groundwater aquifers are located. “Nestlé tends to move into small villages, as discreetly as possible, and holds closed-door meetings promising jobs and infrastructure, negotiating competitive prices with the proprietors. When the project goes public and gains notoriety among the citizens, clashes begin to happen. People get scared and worry that their water will be taken from them,” elaborates Calzavara. Numerous plants are concentrated in the Eastern part of the province, notably around the town of Guelph, about 100 miles from Toronto. Aberfoyle is the largest of these establishments, having been authorised to extract 3.6 million litres of water every day; the second-largest is Hillsburgh, near the town of Erin, with 1.1 million litres; and the third, in terms of size, will be Elora.

According to Rachel Neumayer, a spokesperson for Nestlé Waters Canada – who were willing to answer questions, but did not allow us to visit, let alone photograph their plants – claims Nestlé is transparent about its work. “We verify water quality. We are the only spring water bottler in Canada that employs a hydrogeologist full time. We have over 130 monitoring points in Ontario that collect data on waterways, wetlands, groundwater aquifers and private wells. Our data over the past seventeen years has never shown negative impacts on the reservoirs we extract from, and these findings have been corroborated by third parties.”

The local population has quite a different view on the matter. “Bottling transforms water into a commercial product,” remarks Calzavara. “In the areas in which Nestlé operates, permits get issued automatically. It doesn’t matter if these regions are drying up, or if climate change has caused rainfall to diminish. Groundwater aquifers have been drained significantly. Nestlé takes water at a higher rate than the aquifer is able to replenish. Creeks and streams in close proximity to the bottling plants have been disappearing all across the province. The permits are based on scientific data, which is released by Nestlé itself. This is why we’re fighting to stop the consumption of bottled water.”

Bottled Water? Italy in the Lead

by Marirosa Iannelli, President of Water Grabbing Observatory

With per capita consumption of bottled water amounting to 205 litres per year, Italy is the leading EU country. The total amount of bottled water has risen by 10% in the EU’s third-largest economy over the past eight years; reaching 14 billion litres of water captured by 250 different brands. Overall, within the EU, 50 billion plastic water bottles are put on the market. Furthermore, the PET water bottles business is bound to grow by 13%; with Italy, France and Germany driving the market. Will this expansion ever stop? Within the EU, there is still an on-going debate over a Strategy on plastics and the revision of the Drinking Water Directive, with the aim of reducing the consumption of bottled water by 20%. The approval of both could have an important impact on the environment and the pockets of EU citizens, who could save around €650 million a year by drinking tap water.

Licensing Challenges

Two years ago Nestlé’s licence in Aberfoyle expired. Nevertheless, the company continues to pump up to 3.6 million litres a day from the Aberfoyle well. In fact, since the expiration date of July 31st 2016, Nestlé has extracted about 1.4 billion litres of water. The permit for Hillsburgh, in Erin, expired almost a year ago, on August 31st 2017, but even there the pumping continues. “We are not breaking the law,” explains Nestle’s spokesperson. “Current Canadian legislation allows companies like Nestlé to keep pumping water after the licence expires, if they submit an application to extend before the actual expiry date.” As of 2019, Nestlé will start extracting water from Middlebrook well, not far from Elora, which could become a substitute for the other two wells if their licence extension applications are rejected. January 1st 2019 marks the end of a two-year moratorium imposed by the provincial government on the licensing of new permits for water extraction. According to activist groups in the region, continued extraction after the expiry of licences constitutes an unacceptable violation which fails to take into account a deeper analysis of environmental impacts and the growth in local population. “They ought to cease production immediately,” affirms Arlene Slocombe.

Wellington County recently asked the new government, headed by Doug Ford – the brother of notorious former Mayor Rob Ford, who died in 2016 – to extend the moratorium on new extraction permits for a further four years, in order to allow for the completion of important environmental studies. The motivation behind this request is connected to a series of real estate development plans for the areas surrounding Guelph and Elora. The county needs to evaluate the availability of water resources by accounting for an increase in population and agricultural production, in order to negotiate a better price. “Nestlé doesn’t remunerate our communities for their loss. Initially, it paid 3.71 Canadian dollars for every million litres it extracted; now, after being pressured by the government and activist organisations, it has to pay 503.71 Canadian dollars. Even with this increase it’s as if they’re paying 0.025 cents to take our water and put it in a half litre bottle, only to sell it back to us for 99 cents,” Arlene explains.

“Tragically, the Canadian government endorses an economic system that favours profit over any considerations regarding the vital needs of the people and the planet. It is our duty to promote water security and alternatives to corporate power,” the Wellington Water Watchers director goes on. Many citizens suspect that the newly elected provincial government, led by the conservative Doug Ford since June 8th 2018, is on Nestlé’s side. According to the Toronto Star, clients of the Ford family business Deco Labels & Tags include Nestlé Canada Inc., Coca-Cola and Cara Operations, a hospitality services company. These affiliations are considered to be proof of a conflict of interest by many activists.

As far as its own activity is concerned, Nestlé claims to have done nothing wrong: “Nestlé Waters employs over 300 people in Ontario, at its Puslinch plant. We are also the largest commercial contributor to the Township, and we hire local suppliers and contractors. Everything we do complies with legal requirements. People overestimate our impact: in Ontario bottlers use less than 0.01% of the total extracted water,” the spokesperson explains.

While not all communities are directly affected by the amount of extracted water, like those in Elora or Guelph, for many activists the wider issue is related to human rights. In Ontario today, more than 100 First Nation indigenous communities live with limited access to drinking water. As of July 31st 2017, 172 warnings of contaminated drinking water were reported across 121 First Nation tribes all over Canada.

In these communities, tap water is not safe to drink because of arsenic contamination caused by the mining industry. Those who drink it are faced with poisoning, and if used to wash oneself it can lead to rashes and skin problems. Neskantaga First Nation, a small community of 340 people in Northern Ontario, has been subsisting on bottled water since February 1995.

“Water belongs to the First Nation people. Private companies have no right to steal it. How can we give it away for a pittance when the profits from its sale could help improve the lives of native populations?” This is the question asked by Doog Farquhar, a Save Our Water activist. “Our communities should be the ones to decide how and where to use our water. Water in plastic bottles equates to the production of an enormous amount of waste, which will contribute to the pollution of our air and our oceans. By stopping bottled water, we can really make a difference.”

Photo Reportage by Gianluca Cecere

The Elora Gorge is one of the most beautiful and uncontaminated valleys of the Grand River.

The Rob and Gord MacKay 50-acre farm. Agricultural produce, trees, stables and the sale of various wooden crafts, are amongst the farm’s services.

Rob MacKay grew up in Kitchener and obtained a degree in Business Administration at the Wilfrid Laurier University. He is a passionate environmentalist and strong supporter of the “Eat Local” movement. He runs the MacKay farm with his brother. Their organic vegetables are sold at the Elora Farmer’s Market.

Gord MacKay grew up in Kitchener, Ontario. For many years he was the director of legal services for the St Jacobs Hardware Stores, until he retired in April of 2016. With his brother Rob, he bought the farm in 2008, where he now works full time.

The Toronto skyline from Humber Bay, a Lake Ontario bay south of Toronto.

A “Save Our Water” sign along the Middlebrook RD. in Elora, Ontario, Canada.

Arlene Slocombe has been actively involved in the work of Wellington Water Watcher since its foundation in 2007. She lives on the banks of the river Eramosa, just east of Guelph.

Water bottles sold in a supermarket in Guelph, Ontario.

The Middlebrook Water Company water spring, just a few kilometres from the town of Elora, purchased in 2016 by Nestlé as a supplementary well for their primary production in Aberfoyle.

Mark Calzavara regional organiser of Council of Canadians, has been active in the fight for water resources for years.

A Save Our Water delegation, during Ted Arnott’s electoral campaigning in Wellington-Halton Hills, asking for increased legislation to protect water.

Protests against Nestlé during a visit by the Liberal candidate Kathleen Wynne during the electoral campaign in Guelph.

Doog Farquhar of Save Our Water, an association made up of residents and friends of the waters of Elora, that fight to protect their safety and water sovereignty over local water by asking the Environment Minister to refuse further permits to Nestlé so that they cannot take more water from the Middlebrook well and transport it to Aberfoyle.

Members of the Save Our Water delegation.

Top image: The entrance to the Nestlé water bottling plant in Aberfoyle, Ontario, Canada.