The flawed logic behind Blue Communities

A guest blog by Essie Solomon

Robyn Hamlyn has decided to take the issues surrounding Canada’s water into her own hands.

Hamlyn, inspired by the documentary Blue Gold: World Water Wars, has spent the last year travelling around Ontario, speaking to city councils about the course she believes Canada’s water should take: becoming blue. “Help me save our water. I can’t do it without you,” Hamlyn has pleaded to various mayors and councils. So far, she has won the support of a half-dozen Ontario municipalities, and doesn’t plan on stopping until every community in the province is blue.

Is Robyn Hamlyn an environmentalist with years of experience behind her, or maybe a water utilities or policy expert? No. Robyn Hamlyn is a thirteen-year-old student from Kingston, Ontario, who is determined to change water policy for the greater good of the nation.

Blue Communities, conceived by activist Maude Barlow, the Council of Canadians (COC), and Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), are dedicated to protecting their freshwater resources. To become a blue community, a municipality must comply with three conditions: It must ban the sale of plastic water bottles from public facilities and municipal events, it must have a publicly funded and operated water system, and it must deem water a human right.

Robyn Hamlyn is sure of the virtues of Blue Communities and the good they will do for Canada’s freshwater, which she believes is a shrinking resource. As she stated in a speech to the Council of Canadians in March 2012, “we have to act now, instead of later. I get frustrated with people getting hung up on small details, and when they should be looking at the bigger, more scarier picture.” As articulate as Hamlyn may be, her opinions on the ways in which Canadian water policy should operate are disputable.

The first rule in becoming a Blue Community is the municipal banning of bottled water. Plastic bottles harm the environment, argue Hamlyn, Barlow, the Council of Canadians, and CUPE. Hamlyn is right that plastic water bottles are bad for the environment, but the detrimental effects of these bottles are blown out of proportion by Blue Community supporters and many other activists. Plastic water bottles do take up some space in landfills, but not much – Stewardship Ontario estimates that plastic water bottles make up less than one-fifth of one percent of the municipal solid waste stream in Canada. In addition, 96 percent of Canadians say they recycle their plastic water bottles.

The banning of bottled water will encourage people to purchase less healthy alternatives, such as pop, which is, after all, composed almost completely of water. Diet Coke is 99 percent water – privately owned water. But through this logic, all bottled drinks should be banned, not just the healthiest. If bottled water is not available, people will not stop buying drinks – they will just buy other bottled drinks, which are just as bad for the environment as purchasing bottled water.

In addition to this, Hamlyn suggests that bottled water may actually be less clean and safe than tap water. In reality, the opposite is true: There has never been an illness in Canada due to the consumption of bottled water, whereas there have been many tap water incidences, most notably in Walkerton in 2000, where 7 people died and 2,300 were sickened by a deadly strain of e-coli infecting the town’s water. As well, banning bottled water may be economically inefficient; municipalities following Blue Community guidelines will be forced to invest money in maintaining and installing drinking fountains and other public water facilities, which will cost thousands of dollars they may not have. It shouldn’t be the government’s place to withhold bottled water from its citizens; Canada, after all, is a democracy, and one of the freest countries in the world. Its citizens should have the right to purchase such a product if they wish.

Some argue that CUPE is in such vehement support of the banning of bottled water because they fear that if people drink more bottled water, they will drink less tap water. This will threaten municipal jobs, as CUPE operates most municipal water treatment facilities across Canada. This argument is flimsy. People drink less than 1 percent of municipally produced water, while the rest is used for other residential purposes or by commercial and industrial users.

The second rule in becoming a Blue Community is that the municipality must have publicly funded and operated water systems. According to Hamlyn, it is unethical for water to be profitable. By the logic that water, a necessity, should not generate profits, food should not do so either. I hear no one complaining that is it unethical that people are making a profit from food – on the contrary, food is possibly the biggest industry in the world. Imagine if food was publicly owned. I’d rather not.

The question of which water system is better – public or private – is debatable. In the United States, where private water systems are common, publicly owned and managed water utilities are 100 times more likely to infringe Safe Drinking Water Act regulations than privately owned water utilities. Privately funded water systems are often backed with a century of experience, thousands of specialists, and with investments of millions of dollars. In addition, private water systems are more accountable for their water than public water systems – high standards are necessary with privately owned operations, if they wish to stay in business and keep their customers. Here in Canada, CUPE and COC have admitted to public sewage systems polluting lakes and rivers. Drinking water advisories in publicly owned systems are common. As well, not all municipalities have the money to upgrade their water systems.

In the 1990s, Moncton New Brunswick’s public water system was producing discoloured and poor tasting water. The city did not have enough money to build a water filtration plant, so in 1998 it sought private help. The private system Moncton adopted cost $10 million less than its public counterpart, and its operating expenses were lower – and in the last ten years, the town’s water system hasn’t had one spot on its record.

The third and final principle that must be accepted by all Blue Communities is that water is a human right. The subject of water as a human right has been debated for some time now; it took ten years to persuade Canada to support a UN resolution on the issue. Human rights are not commodities; they are inalienable and absolute, and including water in that category is definitely stretching the definition. Inalienable rights shouldn’t come from the government; it is the government’s job to protect the rights we already have. In addition, human rights should not be something you pay for; there is a price on water, regardless if it is privately or publicly funded.

Hamlyn’s determination to change the fate of our water is fundamentally flawed. Bottled water is not as bad as she, CUPE, and COC claim, and the banning of it would do more harm than good. With privately funded water come experience, accountability, and often better performance; Hamlyn’s mission to commit every community to publicly funded and operated water systems would result in less effective water safety and more polluted lakes and rivers. Lastly, Hamlyn’s logic that water is a human right is flawed, and confirms that maybe we shouldn’t leave the destiny of our water in the hands of a thirteen year old.

Essie Solomon is a journalism intern with Energy Probe Research Foundation.

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