Dylan Matthews is enrolled with the Centre for Global Studies at Huron University College. Mentored by CURL Faculty Associate Dr. Wendy Russell, he is using his $1500 Fellowship to research the public’s relationship to the commodification of water in Ontario.
Water: A Commodity or a Common?
“My research project seeks to understand what mediates the human relationship with water in Southern Ontario. Specifically, how do people perceive, and perhaps react to, the consumption, commodification and sale of water? The research is motivated by a recent controversy around a lease application for an Ontario water well by a private firm, a firm that would then bottle and sell water. This case sparked a debate among members of the community of how the resource of ‘water’ should be treated. The debate on hand is whether groundwater should be considered a ‘common good’ or a resource to which commodification should be allowed. The way in which I approach this debate, as a researcher, is to ask: why is buying water from a private firm different than buying water from a public utility?
Through my Fellowship research, I have developed a set of research questions that will form the basis of an independent study course in September 2017. The intent of this Fellowship, and subsequently the course, is to understand resource management – in this case, water – in a way that transcends understanding it within the confines of its commodification. That is to say, understanding water consumption through its mediation in markets is only one way to understand human relationship to water. To truly understand how to manage resources, such as water, it is important to understand what mediates the human relationship to these resources outside the realm of the market. My research project is a modest step in that direction.”
Updates as of March 6, 2017
As previously mentioned, my research seeks to answer the following question: what mediates the human relationship to the consumption, commodification and sale of water in Southwestern Ontario? To answer this broad question, I focus my research on the specific case of the Aberfoyle water well and private water firm ‘Nestlé’. In late August 2016, there was a dispute surrounding the rights to the access of the well’s groundwater. It was discovered that the permit to the well had expired and, yet, ‘Nestlé’ continued to pump water from the well. In accordance with provincial regulations, ‘Nestlé’ is allowed to continue to operate the Aberfoyle well so long as they have filed for a renewal of the permit 90 days prior to its expiration. ‘Nestlé’ did just that. The controversy of the case is that ‘Nestlé’ pumps out 3.6 million litres of water per day and is only charged $3.71 per million litres pumped out. The question for local residents is: is this the best use of the resource? The interesting thing to note here is that ‘Nestlé’ is not the focal point of this case; rather, it is the provincial government because it is they who decide what action to take with regards to the permit. It is here where the question of whether water should be treated as a commodity or a ‘common good’ becomes important in the decision making process.
The view that those who favour allowing some water for ‘commodification’ take is that not all public water is used to sustain human life. The President of ‘Nestlé” argues that it is within the rights for ‘Nestlé’ to use groundwater for profit, just as it is within the rights of community members to use groundwater to water the lawn, fill the swimming pool or for farmers to use the water to grow crops for sale. The view in favour of commodification is that not all water consumption is used for the sustenance of human life and, therefore, some of it should be open to private corporations. ‘Nestlé’ argues that they are selling both convenience and variety to soda in stores with their water bottles. I found this to be an interesting statement because it is emblematic of the culture to which we live in. I wanted to further understand this cultural shift, over the past 30 years, towards plastic water bottles. While interviewing a Guelph City Councillor who is actively involved in the Aberfoyle case, I had an answer to this query. He noted that as we, as a society, saw an increase in the consumption of plastic water bottles, we also saw a decrease in the amount of public water fountains. This is important because it aids in breaking down the idea that, without ‘Nestlé’, there would be no convenient source of water. This is an example of how our mediation with water has changed culturally towards a market mediation.
The other view is that water must remain a ‘common good’, publically and freely available to everyone, as it is necessary for life. Those who share this view can be broken down into two categories based on the approaches they take to maintaining the ‘common good’; the first being that water can remain a ‘common good’ through increased regulation, a better defining of what is considered ‘necessary’ water culturally and a quota system to mediate these factors. This view takes the approach that governments and institutions can preserve the ‘commons’, and at the same time, allow for some degree of highly-regulated commodification. This group is lobbying the provincial government to increase regulations on ‘water’. I had the pleasure of interviewing an executive of the Wellington Water Watchers, who are working to lobby the provincial government to take action in this regard. The second approach is to lobby the government to decline the ‘Nestlé’ permit and have local municipalities buy and control the water well. This group believes that selling the water is not an appropriate allocation of the resource as it goes to wherever the market is, and not always to those who need it most. They criticize those who want stronger regulation, arguing that by increasing regulations; you are still telling companies like ‘Nestlé’ that what they are doing is ‘okay’. This group does not share that view.
My interviews in Guelph have given me a plethora of insights and questions; I am currently doing some secondary research to justify these insights and answer these questions.