Communities across Canada have a new way to show their support for public drinking water.
The Blue Communities Project – launched on World Water Day by the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Union of Public Employees – is based on the premise that water is a “commons” or public resource that should be managed and distributed according to environmental and social justice principles.
Canada’s public drinking water system was built at the turn of the century when governments in industrialized countries realized that the only way to contain epidemics and ensure a healthy population and strong work force was to provide safe drinking water.
After decades of public control, most Canadians now benefit from one of the best public drinking water systems in the world, with the notable exception of several Indigenous and rural communities that struggle with water access and contaminations problems.
At a time when corporations see the commodification of water and privatization of water services as one of the few stable sources of investment and economic growth, it is more important than ever to improve access to communities that have been denied clean water, and to maintain public control over water and water services.
The Blue Communities Project
Municipalities are on the frontlines of the Canadian water crisis. They are responsible for the treatment and distribution of water at a time of increased water shortages and water contamination. They must maintain extremely high drinking water standards even though the federal government fails to provide adequate funding for much-needed infrastructure upgrades and maintenance. Municipalities currently face a $31 billion deficit in water infrastructure funding and one quarter of our municipalities have faced water shortages in recent years.
The Blue Communities Project is about giving municipalities and community activists the tools and resources to protect water resources and promote publicly-owned and operated water services by adopting a water commons framework. The project promotes the water commons framework by calling on municipalities to declare water a human right, promote public water and ban the sale and provision of bottled water in municipal facilities, and promote publicly-owned and operated water and waste water services.
Declaring water a human right
The recognition of water as a human right in Canada would ensure that all people living in this country are legally entitled to sufficient quantities of safe, clean drinking water and water for sanitation, and would require that inequalities in access to water be addressed immediately. Unfortunately, water is not officially recognized as a human right by the federal government. On the other hand, the rights of corporations, whose activities drain, contaminate and destroy watersheds, are protected in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other international trade and investment agreements.
Internationally, the Canadian government has actively prevented the recognition of water as a human right at key United Nations (UN) meetings. Domestically, because responsibility for water is shared between municipal, provincial, and federal governments, it is crucial that the right to water be enshrined at each level of government.
Municipal recognition of the right to water would, among other things, safeguard against a pricing scheme that would limit access to drinking water, ensure all residents have equal access to adequate supplies of safe, clean water, and provide citizens with information on their water supply and services. While most Canadian municipalities already meet these criteria, officially recognizing the right to water at the municipal level would cement these principles. It would also create much-needed momentum to apply pressure on other levels of government to play their role in recognizing water as a human right.
Banning bottled water
The Blue Communities Project calls on municipalities to promote their own municipal drinking water rather than sending mixed messages by selling bottled water in public facilities.
Two decades ago bottled water was considered a luxury product consumed by a niche market. Today, one-third of Canadian households choose bottled water to meet their hydration needs. Canadians consume two billion litres of bottled water per year. Canada is a net exporter of bottled water, selling its ancient glacier waters all over the world mostly for the profit of big foreign-owned water companies like Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
In order to persuade people to spend up to 3,000 times more than what they spend on tap water, bottled water companies advertise their products as a “safer and healthier” alternative. Nothing could be further from the truth. Regulation of tap water is far more stringent than bottled water, which is inspected on average only once every three years. Municipal tap water is tested continuously during and after treatment.
Increasingly, Canadians are moving back to the tap and rejecting bottled water. A growing number of Canadian municipalities, school boards and other institutions are banning the sale and purchase of bottled water in their facilities and at their events.
Promoting public water infrastructure and services
Drinking water services have important public health and environmental implications. Protecting the public interest requires public control and autonomy. Public water utilities are responsive and accountable to the communities they serve.
This accountability is lost when municipalities look to public-private partnerships (P3s) for water delivery. Despite the evidence that P3s are more expensive, financially risky, less effective and unaccountable, the federal government is aggressively pushing privatization as a prerequisite for federal infrastructure funding. The Harper government’s “Building Canada” infrastructure plan forces governments seeking $50 million or more in federal project contributions to consider privatization through a costly and time-consuming P3 review. “Communities don’t have to take the bait,” says Corina Crawley, staff researcher with CUPE National. “Local governments still have access to the lowest borrowing rates available and there is no incentive to rely on more expensive private financing, or to lock communities into long-term deals that tie governments’ hands.”
The future of water
The economic crisis should force us to rethink the wisdom of relying on the precarious market system for providing essential services such as water treatment and distribution. When it comes to water services we cannot afford to give corporations a stake only to have them pull out when the deal is no longer lucrative. We need a model for our water that puts the public interest and the environment ahead of corporate profit. It’s time to turn our communities “Blue.”
Meera Karunananthan is the National Water Campaigner for the Council of Canadians. For more information about the Council of Canadians’ Blue Communities Project and ways you can support public water, visit our website at www.canadians.org/water,or e-mail bluecommunities[at]canadians[dot]org.